The Air We Breathe - PhMuseum

The Air We Breathe

Jessica Milberg

2020 - Ongoing

In 2005 whilst travelling around California, I noticed on the map a large blue lake just outside of Palm Springs. It was called the Salton Sea. I had a vague memory of hearing about the place, something to do with Sonny Bono and a place called Bombay Beach I had seen some old post-cards of but, this was the days before smart phones and with my curiosity peaked, I pulled off the main highway. I was met with something so startlingly frightening and simultaneously beautiful that I had to take a moment and catch my breath, literally. The smell of sulphur and decay mixed with the punch of extreme heat made me feel faint. As I walked around taking pictures of the bone white “sand” along the shore of the water that was so still it looked like a mirage, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of unease and sadness.

The Salton Sea is more than a ghost town, it’s the chalky white outline surrounding the death of one community and the futures of others. The Sea itself was the result of a capitalist engineering blunder. In 1905 the previously diverted Colorado River breached a nearby irrigation canal and caused the lowest point in the Imperial Valley, then known as the Salton Sink, to flood. The breach wasn’t stemmed for two years and by the time it was fixed, a “sea” of more than one thousand square miles had formed with salination levels similar to that of the oceans, safe enough to swim in and able to support a fish and wildlife population. By the 1950’s and 60’s the area was being touted as the Riviera of California, attracting holiday makers and investors, but by the 1970’s it became clear that there was a problem. The salination level was rising due to the lack of drainage and the build-up of polluted runoff from local farms was causing the fish to become toxic. A cycle of fish die off in the hot summer months and increased algae blooms began, but dead fish rotting in the hot sun introduce botulism. Birds started dying from eating the fish and if this wasn’t enough to cripple the tourism, two major storms in the 1970’s causing largescale flooding, did. Communities simply abandoned their homes and businesses, never to return.

I had the opportunity to return to the Salton Sea 15 years later. What I saw was heart breaking. The water level had gone down considerably leaving vast areas of exposed, dried lakebed. A few birds sat in the shallowest parts of the water, alighting for very short periods of time before taking to the air again. Every few feet the water’s edge was dotted with rotting bird carcasses; birds that had lingered too long in the toxic water or got stuck in the quicksand like silt and died from exposure. For every death along the water there were “deaths” in the towns around the sea in the form of derelict or boarded up homes. Some families still lived there, mostly with young children or very elderly, the cost of living is low.

Something didn’t feel right about this place, something about it, fifteen years on seemed angry and sinister. I started doing some research only to find out that multiple efforts and funds had been made in the past to help but, scraped due to cost. I also discovered that the tension I felt was founded. The area was handed a bad deal in 2003, cutting off the main source of water supply to the sea. This meant that the air surrounding it was being plagued with toxic dust storms from the evaporated areas. People in the Imperial Valley became sick. One in five children there have severe asthma and most families can’t afford the needed healthcare or to move. Environmentalists have seen this before and know the outcome. Soon, not just the Imperial Valley, but the neighbouring upscale communities of Palm Springs, Indio (host to the Coachella music festival), Indian Springs, etc will have toxic air.

My project will tell the story of the Salton Sea in three parts. The first is of the land, exploring its current state and how it’s environmental history is embedded within its banks and beaches. The second is of the overlooked and dying community that feels the effects of the changing sea and their story of invisibility as a socioeconomically challenged area. The third and final part will be an exploration into the future. This part will start to shed light on the questions surrounding the futures of these communities and the more affluent ones who face the same fate, do they understand the risk, will they help?

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