Millions of dead fish, rotting birds bloated with botulism, a nudist, a Hungarian freedom fighter with a penchant for mooning teenagers, and a chain-smoking granny with a French cigarette holder who espouses deeply rooted prejudices as she cruises around in a golf cart.
Whatâ??s the common denominator?
The Salton Sea â?? an enormous, man-made mini ocean lying in the middle of the southern California desert. All of the above make up the eccentric community/eco-hazard covered in the documentary â??Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea,â?? set to be screened at Tacomaâ??s Grand Cinema May 20.
â??It had played at our Tacoma Film Fest in October, and they had contacted us about screening it at the Grand,â?? said Phil Cowan, the Grandâ??s executive director. â??So I watched it again, and it was really well done. It was excellently shot, funny and played to an environmental focus, so we picked it up.â??
Following a trail blazed by documentary filmmaker Micheal Moore, â??Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Seaâ?? humanizes a hot-button topic by putting the emphasis on the everyday people who are at the center of a controversy, instead of the controversy itself. Refusing to focus on water rights or environmental stewardship, the film puts the spotlight on the people who live by the sea.
â??People have to relate to the issue to get truly involved,â?? Jeff Springer, the filmâ??s co-director, said. â??Rather than interview conservationists in Los Angeles or a water commissioner in San Diego, we wanted to give a voice to the people who live there. We felt like their opinions were getting lost in the debate amongst the outsiders.â??
The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905, when the Colorado River was diverted to provide irrigation to the arid desert region in Southern California. A major engineering error caused massive flooding, which accumulated in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Mineral deposits leaching in from the basin increased the salinity level of the Salton Sea â?? a continual process that is a primary cause for the giant fish and bird kills that have occurred there over the last decade.
However, there was once a promising future for this enormous body of water. After importing fish from the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s, the area was turned into a recreational fishing and water sports haven. Resorts and marinas soon dotted the shores, and a massive land-grab ensued.
Unfortunately, the area went bust instead of boom. Land speculators refused to build on the property, hoping instead to turn a quick buck when the property values increased. Due to several hurricanes that flooded the sea, land values actually depreciated. Homes were never built, and communities never developed.
Fast forward to 2007, and the sea has been turned into what some describe as a giant sewer. Having no natural outlets, whatever drains into the sea stays in the sea. Agricultural runoff once replenished the water level and kept the salinity level down, but that changed after the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego renegotiated water rights and diverted the supply to their cities.
The salinity level has since shot up, killing millions of fish a day during large kills. One Salton Sea resident in the film recalled a day when piled-up fish covered an area that extended 350 feet from his dock and was a quarter-mile long. In turn, birds feeding on the dead fish began contracting botulism and dying by the hundreds.
Despite all this, a few hardy locals hang on to a dream that development is just around the corner, buying up cheap land from dollar-rate real estate agents like The Landman, a Hispanic immigrant who came to the sea with dreams of making millions.
Meanwhile, others locals are more stoic about the sea. The townâ??s junk salesman, who makes several brief, but hilarious, appearances in the film, trashes everything and everyone.
Then there are the eccentrics. Aside from the nudist and Hungarian freedom fighter, thereâ??s also a man building a religious mountain out of adobe, donated paint and used refrigerators.
â??Although many might find them eccentric, they each represent a different side of the Salton Sea,â?? the filmâ??s other co-producer, Chris Metzler, said. â??Itâ??s an eccentric and bizarre area, so naturally the people are, as well.â??
Those heading to the Grand Cinema to catch the filmâ??s screening will have a chance to help save the sea, as well as the lifestyle of those who call it home.
â??With each screening that weâ??re having, weâ??ll be having the audience fill out postcards in the memory of Sonny Bono, late entertainer and former congressman, who had championed the Salton Sea. The cards will be addressed to the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and encourage the delay of some of the currently scheduled water transfers,â?? Metzler said.
With Bonoâ??s passing, the sea lost a huge advocate for its restoration. As one resident put it in the film, â??I think Sonny was good for the sea, but unfortunately, he went skiing.â??
For more information on the film, go to www.saltonseadoc.com.