SALTON CITY — The Salton Sea is a shallow body of water in deep trouble.
Lee Dye Jr., a retired Marine staff sergeant who quotes Emerson and Toynbee and lives with dogs named Dino and Tailgate, knows the Salton Sea is in sorry shape. Yet he remains in his low-ceilinged house just a stone's throw from the seashore.
Where else could he find the solitude to spend his days playing the stock market and reading French literature? Or the crystal clarity to scan the desert sky at night and contemplate the constellations?
"I remember before I moved down here, people said the Salton Sea would be too salty by 1975 to allow any life in the water," said Dye, 72. "I came anyway and the Salton Sea is still here."
The last few years, though, have sorely tested the gritty optimism of Dye and several thousand other hardy souls who refuse to abandon the state's largest lake, which has become the ecological equivalent of the Broadway stage: always dying but never quite dead.
During the four blistering summer months, the sea is like something out of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Breezeless, punished by a hot and copper sky, water everywhere but none to drink (the sea is 30% saltier than the ocean), water that is burnt green (or brown or rust), water that has slimy things growing and rotting in it.
Into this bleak landscape has come something new.
For the first time since the Salton Sea was created in 1905 when an engineering mistake let the Colorado River gush into an ancient salt sink, there will be a public agency charged solely with saving the Salton Sea.
One day in late June, when the temperature hit 115 degrees, politicians from Imperial and Riverside counties gathered in the un-air-conditioned meeting room of the Salton Sea Spa and Recreational Vehicle Park. They drank champagne, ate jumbo shrimp and saluted the newly formed Salton Sea Authority, to be ruled jointly by Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.
"Our job is to keep the Salton Sea from becoming the Dead Sea," said Riverside Supervisor Bob Buster. "We should have been doing this 20 years ago," said Imperial Supervisor Dean Shores.
The obstacles are daunting. The infant agency has no clout to mandate that farmers curb their use of pesticides or that the Mexican government stop dumping into the north-flowing New River, which delivers a toxic stew daily into the Salton Sea.
Although there are a variety of promising engineering solutions for the sea's woes, such projects would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the Salton Sea Authority has no money. The agency has no staff. Nor does it have a strategy for cutting through the jurisdictional disputes, competing economic interests and public apathy that have stagnated previous efforts to throw a lifeline to the Salton Sea.
But hope is where you find it. And lovers of the Salton Sea believe the time for action may have finally arrived for this unnatural natural resource, which is 35 miles long, 15 miles wide, an average of 16 feet deep, and twice as big as Lake Tahoe.
If help arrives, it will hardly be a moment too soon. Consider the depressing roll call of the Salton Sea's recent problems:
The birds are dying. Some species of fish are refusing to reproduce. Scientists are saying scary things about DDT and the toxic chemical selenium lurking in the brackish water. Tourists are fleeing.
Since 1986, health officials have posted signs warning that women of child-bearing age and children under 14 should not eat fish from the sea and that nobody should eat more than eight ounces of it every two weeks.
The number of campers annually at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area has dropped by two-thirds in seven years. The number of fishermen and hunters at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is down by half.
The New River, one of two rivers that empty into the Salton Sea, has been called the most polluted river in North America. Fluctuating water levels in the sea, caused by irrigation runoff and rain runoff from the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Chocolate Mountains, have flooded waterfront businesses, then left boat ramps high and dry. Motels, marinas and restaurants are abandoned, vandalized and graffitied.
The sea smells so awful that the West Shore Chamber of Commerce feels compelled to hand out a fact sheet entitled "Questions Often Asked About The Salton Sea." Among them: "What \o7 is\f7 that smell?" Answer: fermenting algae giving off hydrogen sulfide gas.
Boosterish billboards, "The Salton Sea, The Place To Be," are mocked by other weather-beaten signs that promise "Future Home of . . . ," relics of unrealized development. Streets lead to seaside subdivisions never built.
As if things were not bad enough, Joseph Wambaugh took a whack at the Salton Sea in his recent novel, "Fugitive Nights." Wambaugh's antihero, a broken-down Palm Springs cop, tails what he thinks is a cheating husband to a desert rendezvous: