Checking out The Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

I don't ordinarily talk about or review documentaries here but every now and then one comes along that keeps me thinking about it long after the final credits have rolled.

In this case, I'm talking about Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's extraordinary and heart-wrenching documentary The Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, which has its television premiere next week on the Sundance Channel, after a brief theatrical release. I first saw the documentary over a year ago when it was making the rounds at the festival circuit and couldn't help but fall under its powerful spell.

The Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters, deals with a chapter in the history of California (and that of America) that most have already forgotten. It charts the rise and ultimate fall of a little man-made desert oasis called the Salton Sea that represents both the hubris of mankind and our ability to forget our failures. It's a touching, funny, and eye-opening look at a forgotten town that is only 50 miles away from the glamour and sheen of Palm Springs, a town hanging onto its last breath by a thread and one that might cease to exist altogether. The documentary is a painful example of a widespread ecological disaster and an almost Lynchian investigation into this weird little town that's fallen off the map and the colorful characters that make up the fabric of this strange place.

Quick history lesson: in 1901, farmers diverted water from the Colorado River for irrigation but the river quickly overflowed. The farmers were stymied until a railroad tycoon intervened and tried to plug the breach, which had caused 6 months of flooding. The result was a man-made sea, comprised of salty run-off from the farms, a 51-mile long sea in the middle of the desert. Over the next few decades, the Salton Sea became a popular tourist destination and in 1951, fish (among them the corvina and tilapia) were brought in. By the 1960s, the Salton Sea was one of THE places to be, a tour destination for the Beach Boys, a vacation home for the wealthy, a popular swimming, fishing, and water-skiing locale.

It was a little like Paradise. That is, until 1976, when the towns on the shores of the Salton Sea flooded again, caused by an excess of farm run-off and two powerful tropical storms. Things never quite recovered. The sea had become excessively salty, to the point where the fish couldn't receive enough oxygen and began to die in large numbers. In 1994, 1.76 million fish died in a single day (see picture above), causing a rotting smell to permeate the area; the fish carcasses turned into protein, which promoted algae bloom, which in turn brought back more fish and the cycle began anew.

The Salton Sea has become a series of little more than ghost towns, old timers looking to cling onto what the town still was and what it might be. (More than a few still believe that the paradise promised by the decades-old hype might be true and the Salton Sea could become a popular destination again.) It's populated by some mightily eccentric individuals: a man building a holy mountain, powered by the word of God; a man who eats the fish out of the sea raw like sashimi; the 91-year-old proprietor of a dying cafe; revolutionaries; single moms trying to raise their kids outside the violence of South Central LA; a Latino land merchant with a penchant for American flag shirts; a brashly outspoken elderly woman who survived a "little cancer problem" and who drives around in a golf cart, cigarette in hand, making scathing remarks about everyone. (Like I said, David Lynch would have a field day here.)

Ultimately, The Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is an eye-opening account of what happens when man tampers with the world around him and a painful (though at times wickedly humorous) look into a group of people who refuse to leave this once-beautiful place. You might call them fiercely stubborn or unwaveringly optimistic; in either case, I can't stop thinking about them and about a place that promised Paradise but now looks nothing less than hell on earth.

The Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea premieres June 26 on the Sundance Channel at 9:35 pm.

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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.