When I told my family I was going kayaking on the Salton Sea, their reaction was just what I expected: “Are you sure that’s safe?” my mother asked with uneasiness.
That is precisely what had crossed my mind when I was invited to join Assemblymembers V. Manuel Pérez and Ben Hueso (now a state senator) on a kayaking excursion on the manmade sea bordering Riverside and Imperial counties.
As a beat reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, there is no “standard” assignment. I never know what will come out of an editorial meeting, but I am usually up for anything. However, this particular assignment made me nervous and excited at the same time. The nervous part of me worried I would flip the kayak upside down, forcing me to swallow gallons of the toxic salt water. The excited part of me couldn’t wait to row a vessel across this controversial body of water.
The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is a big part of our region’s history. Created more than 100 years ago in 1907, the inland sea was the product of high flooding on the Colorado River crashing into the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. At about 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Salton Sea would later have fish introduced; by 1920, the sea became a popular tourist attraction.
But those stories of the former greatness of the sea are only memories now—black-and-white images of surf signs, and tourists dancing along the shore with their radios and beach balls. Now the Salton Sea is known more for dead fish and bad odor.
Before I could think about it too much, I found myself at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, where, much to my surprise, I learned kayaking is an activity that anyone can do. As I settled into my individual kayak, I couldn’t help but notice the smell—the foul, fishy, dirty-water smell with which Eastern Coachella Valley residents are familiar. Nonetheless, I powered through it. After being pushed into the water, my kayak rocking side to side, I felt a rush of excitement. I was actually in the Salton Sea! On a kayak!
The smell seemed to disappear as I paddled farther and deeper into the sea. The water looked like a reflection of the blue sky above, while the mountains engulfed the space around us. I managed to lay the paddles on the kayak and take some photos, hoping to capture the picturesque scenes.
A Salton Sea official, kayaking along with the group, told us that kayaking is not the only activity available to the public. Campers, birdwatchers, photographers and hikers can enjoy the area’s many recreational opportunities. The high winds provide a perfect place to simply fly a kite.
I also learned that the sea is technically safe to swim in, although it was not advisable due to the presence of bacteria. Imagine my surprise when I saw Hueso jump into the sea for a swim! (Last I heard, he was doing just fine.)
Although I grew up in the Eastern Coachella Valley, not too far from the Salton Sea, I have only recently realized the impact this environment has had on my life. This sea is as much a part of our valley as the mountains that surround us and the sandstorms that wreak havoc on newly washed cars.
The Salton Sea is receiving a lot of attention these days, in part because of the high winds last year that blew the smell of dead fish and salt water as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego. People outside of our area were reminded of the unfiltered inland sea in our backyard. Many of our elected officials, including Pérez, are working on proposals to save the sea and improve the quality of life of those who live nearby. These proposed solutions are complex and may take years to come to fruition.
Kayaking along the Salton Sea felt like a mini getaway from the worries and pressure of the issues people my community faces daily. I feel almost ashamed that it took an invitation from our assemblymember in order for me to realize the potential of the Salton Sea. On that kayak, I saw firsthand how special our sea is—and why it is worth saving.
Coachella Unincorporated is a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.