From the Dead Sea to the Salton Sea

Exploring the worst environmental disasters in California’s history.

California's Salton Sea (photo credit: NOAM BEDEIN)
California's Salton Sea
(photo credit: NOAM BEDEIN)
For two years I have worked on documenting and advocating for the renewal of the Dead Sea. Now I am moving on to the next level of advocacy, seeking to tie similar environment causes together across the globe. Living in a country that is a global leader in water management and technology, there’s much we Israelis can do today for the good of the environment and human society. There is no doubt that the environmental advocacy and educational tools being developed at the Dead Sea Revival Project can be used all over the world.
First stop: California
Due to the lack of reliable dry-season rainfall, water is limited in California – the most populous US state. The devastating effects of climate change on the California region can be grasped visiting Lake Cachuma and Montecito. From 2013-2017 California was in a drought. In 2016 Santa Barbara’s main reservoir, Lake Cachuma, dropped to 7%, eventually averaging to 39% in 2017. When we visited it was obvious from the growth of foliage and additions to the docks that the lake hadn’t been full for years.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the state should increase the redistribution of water to its large agricultural and urban sectors, or increase conservation and preserve the natural ecosystems of the water sources. It was fascinating and yet alarming to learn about the water restriction laws in one of the richest states in the US. When a State of Emergency was declared, it became illegal to water lawns during certain times, or to wash cars in your driveway. People were urged through multimedia campaigns to conserve water during the drought and sometimes water use did decline. Unfortunately last year’s storms caused a false sense of security and the governor lifted many of the restrictions.
In March 2018, I came to explore and document one of the worst environmental disasters in California’s history. Seeing the direct, devastating pattern of climate change and its effect on the environment, I came to acknowledge the vulnerability of humanity in the face of “Mother Nature.” I realized both the importance of environment preservation, and the responsibility we all share in this regard, no matter where we live or come from.
I first heard “red-alert sirens” in Santa Barbara
Originally, I had been invited to lecture on California’s college campuses, and present my “Illusory Beauty: The Dead Sea – Warning Signs,” a multimedia and virtual reality show. Between spring break and the Passover/Thanksgiving holiday vacation, I visited my colleague and former graduate student intern Jeremy Ginsberg, who has resided in Santa Barbara county for the past seven years. Jeremy shared his recent close encounter with me: “Only two months ago, 24 people were killed by mudslides coming down from the mountains, 15 minutes’ drive from where I live.”
I asked him to tell me more about this natural disaster.
At the end of last year, he said, the hills above Santa Barbara, Montecito, Ojai and Ventura were host to the largest fires in California history, with the Thomas Fire eventually burning 273,246 acres. In the beginning of the new year, a three-day rainstorm dropped five inches of rain on the central coast. At one point during this storm, a half-inch of rain fell in five minutes. The storm caused the land scarred by fire to become loose and flow down the mountain, overwhelming creeks and rivers. The result of the storms was 24 dead and an approximately $1.8 billion decrease in property values.
It was a devastating sight to see homes shattered and tilted, buried neighborhoods, yards, trees, streets, street signs. The huge boulders scattered everywhere gave testimony to the might of nature.
I just had to capture the effects of this disaster, to pass on that visual experience to others. I started to film with my portable virtual reality (VR) camera, recording a 360-degree panorama. While documenting the devastation I was reminded of my work in Israel capturing the devastating effects that sinkholes are having on the Dead Sea shore, swallowing buildings, beach resorts, main streets and farms.
Ironically enough, as we were leaving the disaster site, we received an emergency alert over the radio, and later via text message, warning that Santa Barbara and Ventura counties were expecting a storm. Orders came for the immediate evacuation of approximately ten thousand people in “red zones,” or previous mudslide and fire areas.
“No one will be taking risks or staying behind this time, that’s for sure,” Jeremy said, while on the phone speaking to his family and friends in Montecito, who were already starting to pack for evacuation.
What a life-transforming experience, I thought to myself. Having lived on the Gaza border in Sderot, through “Color Red” sirens going off, warning citizens of incoming rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza, now rushing through California with sirens going off warning of monster boulders and mudslides. It wasn’t comforting to hear from unofficial sources that over 70% of the debris remaining on the mountain hilltops could slide down toward the valleys of Santa Barbara and Montecito any time there was rainfall of even a few inches.
Fortunately this particular storm caused no major damage, but Montecito’s evacuation order lasted about four days, and Montecito will be on edge for years to come.
The Salton Sea – California’s worst-ever environmental disaster
To avoid heavy traffic from the evacuation, I headed out early the next morning to explore and document what may well have been the worst-ever environmental disaster in California: the Salton Sea, located 3.5 hours’ drive southeast of Los Angeles.
I had first heard about this sea from Doron Gazit, an Israeli environmental artist who’s been advocating for the environment around the world with his artistic red-line project for the past 30 years.
Arriving at the Salton Sea’s abandoned, ghostly shores, I noticed a billboard from the 1950s welcoming Hollywood actors to one of the Salton Sea’s resorts – at that time the No. 1 vacation spot for Hollywood celebrities.
Alongside the abandoned shacks and empty parking lots, tilted palm trees and branches, I exploring the shore, trying to comprehend the devastation of this lake. I was astonished to see the remains of thousands of dead fish spread out miles ahead.
That’s when it hit me.
Immediately I took out my tripod and VR camera and began filming right there in the midst of the dead fish, attempting to capture 360 degrees of this scene of horrifying devastation.
The Salton Sea was California’s largest lake and has been shrinking for years, with fish and birds dying. The dry lake bottom already spews toxic dust into the air, threatening a region inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people. For more than a century the lake was sustained by water from the Colorado River. Now this water flow will be cut dramatically, causing the lake to shrink even faster, sending more toxic dust blowing through low-income, largely Latino farming communities. The ecosystem is starting to collapse. The lake is already saltier than the ocean, and the remaining fish will soon die as the salinity rises.
The parallels
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth and considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. It is drying up rapidly, at a pace of five feet per year, mainly because of the diversion of and damming of the natural water flow from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.
In addition, climate change, resulting in many years of drought, is making it extremely difficult to provide drinking water for the growing populations in many other nations in the Middle East.
The Dead Sea (Salt Sea in Hebrew) and the Salton Sea are parts of totally different ecosystems, and there are better possibilities for restoring the natural flow of water to the Dead Sea than to the Salton Sea. However, the reasons for the drying up of these two seas are similar – as are the consequences:
It is predicted that up to 1.8 billion people worldwide will not be able to access clean drinking water within a decade. A partial solution can be found in some of the largest and most advanced technological projects being developed for desalinating salt water into purified fresh drinking water. Israel, a world leader in this field, today has sufficient water resources due to its sophisticated technology, and works to share its success with other nations across the globe.
The author is director of The Dead Sea Revival Project.