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Arts & Culture

Truly California: Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea

Fish die-off at the Salton Sea.
Department of Fish & Wildlife
Fish die-off at the Salton Sea.

Airs Monday, August 23, 2010 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Once known as the “California Riviera”, the Salton Sea is called one of America’s worst ecological disasters: a fetid, stagnant, salty lake, coughing up dead fish and birds by the thousands.

Yet a few hardy eccentrics hang on to hope, including a roadside nudist waving at passing European tourists, a man building a religious mountain out of mud and paint, beer-loving Hungarian Revolutionary Hunky Daddy, and the real-estate “Ronald McDonald” known simply as The Landman. Through their perceptions and misperceptions, the strange history and unexpected beauty of the Salton Sea is revealed.

“Accidentally” created by an engineering error in 1905, reworked in the 50’s as a world class vacation destination for the rich and famous, and then suddenly abandoned after a series of hurricanes, floods, and fish die-offs, the Salton Sea has a bittersweet past. Congressman Sonny Bono himself was once dedicated to saving the lake, until he went skiing one day…


Now amongst the ruins of this man-made mistake, these few remaining people struggle to keep a remodeled version of the dream alive. However, this most unique community is now threatened by the nearby megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Diego, as they attempt to take the agricultural run-off that barely sustains the sea. The fate of this so-called ecological time bomb and the community that surrounds it remain uncertain, as the Salton Sea might just dry up.

While "Plagues And Pleasures" covers the historical, economic, political, and environmental issues that face the sea, it more importantly offers up an offbeat portrait of the eccentric and individualistic people who populate its shores. It is an epic western tale of fantastic real estate ventures and failed boomtowns, inner-city gangs fleeing to white small town America, and the subjective notion of success and failure amidst the ruins of the past. Hair-raising and hilarious, part history lesson, part cautionary tale and part portrait of one of the strangest communities you’ve ever seen, this is the American Dream gone as stinky as a dead carp.

Video Excerpt: Truly California: Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea