Hollywood's former holiday destination of choice to vanish from tourist map


Los Angeles

More than 100 years after it was created by a flood – and following decades of environmental degradation – California's once-famous Salton Sea is six weeks from falling off the tourist map, thanks to the state's fiscal crisis.

The huge – but slowly shrinking – inland lake south-east of Los Angeles faces the closure of its official recreation area, where generations of visitors have been able to camp, fish, picnic and relax on beaches, as part of budget-cutting measures due to take effect at the start of July.

It marks an ignominious end for a remote but visually-arresting landmark, which was expected to become one of the nation's most glamorous tourist attractions and in its earlier days was a favourite party destination for old-school Hollywood stars.

Known as the "accidental sea", the Salton was formed in 1905, when the Colorado River temporarily burst its banks due to unprecedented rainfall and melting snow. In the 1930s, as LA boomed, developers suddenly realised its potential as a tourist destination.

Visitors in the early days included everyone from the Marx Brothers to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack, which would hold speedboat races there. In the 1960s, the Beach Boys and Pointer Sisters performed at its country club and Sonny Bono learned to water-ski there.

Yet while the good times rolled, the Salton Sea began to suffer from an existential problem. Situated 200ft below sea level, in a region of desert where temperatures often hit 110C, the water began to slowly disappear due to evaporation.

The sea, which relies on excess water run-off from nearby farms to replenish its stocks, is now 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (down from 40 by 20 miles at its peak) and is losing millions of gallons each year. Salt deposits from the surrounding soil have left it with greater salinity than the Pacific Ocean.

As a result, once vibrant resorts that sat on its shores are now closed and derelict, several miles from the water's edge. The trout and corvine, which previously attracted fly fishermen, have been largely killed off. And at the wrong time of year algal blooms leave the entire region smelling like an open sewer. Today's remaining visitors consist of a smattering of bird watchers, curious tourists who want to take photographs of the ghostly landscape and anglers who pursue tilapia, the only species still able to survive there in decent numbers.

The recreation area, covering most of its northern shore, has appeared on a list of state parks to be closed on 1 July to save public money. Once shut, ownership will return to the federal government, whose guidelines require that it then be returned to its "natural state".

Closure would swiftly see the visitor centre bulldozed, to prevent squatters, and campsites and parking facilities closed. The only hope for the park's survival is for supporters to raise $250,000 (£160,000) each year to allow it to remain open, staffed by volunteers.

But the prospect of that seems only slight.

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