After our tour of the Arizona Territorial Prison we piled into the bus and took the short drive to our hotel, the Yuma Garden Holiday Inn. We checked in, had a short rest and it was time to go by bus to dinner at the EAT Asian Super Buffet. This was one of the largest buffets I have ever seen. There were 57 items on the menu but I’m sure there were more than that. There were 6 or 8 steam tables with at least 10 items each PLUS all the deserts were on a table to the side and there appeared to be sushi to order. It was Asian food for a crowd. My favorite item was the fried donuts.
After dinner we heard a talk by a retired Bureau of Reclamation administrator. His topic was “The Colorado River System”. For a number of years he was the manager over the Hoover Dam. He showed the picture below at the end of his talk and described what he said was one of the highlights of his career. He said a pick up truck driver pulling a trailer asked if he could hang a super flag on the Hoover Dam. The driver told him he had had the flag made and was trying to get it into the Guinness Book of World’s Records. The flag had been displayed on various sports fields using volunteer ground crews to hold it but it had to be hung to count. The only place he could think of large enough to hang it was on Hoover Dam. If this occurred exactly as he said I can imagine what was going through his mind. If you call and ask permission from someone above, if you get an answer at all, it will be “no” because some lawyer said “xyz”. So he must have decided this was too cool to pass up and he would just beg forgiveness if anything went wrong and said yes. The guy’s crew put it up, everyone got pictures and they took it away that same day.
I’ve since read flags of that size, probably 505 feet by 225 feet, would weigh about 3000 lbs and cost about $80,000. He said they had brought everything needed to unfurl and hang it. In researching this on the internet I’ve found an incident where a super-flag was hung on the dam in 1996 to mark the Olympic Torch Relay. Whether this was the same incident the administrator was talking about or if his story happened before 1996 I don’t know but it is still a great story and makes a great picture.
The next morning we were on the road by 8:30 am. Within minutes we crossed into California on I-8. Our guide pointed out the All-American Canal. It is an 82 mile long irrigation channel that brings water from the Imperial Diversion Dam, 20 miles up river from Yuma, to the Imperial Valley in California. The All-American Canal was authorized along with the Hoover Dam in 1928 and built during the 1930’s. The canal is 225 feet wide and 10 foot deep with very steep sides. It has few climb-out ladders or other safety devices found in other canals. Because it parallels the Mexican border it acts as a barrier to Mexicans trying to get into the United States. Over 500 people have died since the canal opened, most undocumented immigrants. Deaths peaked at 31 in 1998 after increased border security elsewhere on the border forced migrants to find a new way of entering the US. In 2011 $1.1 million was allocated by the Imperial Irrigation District to install lines with lifesaving buoys across the channel in 105 locations. If you look closely on the top middle picture below an orange rescue line runs across the canal.
The wide, open channel is highly prone to evaporation due to the wide surface area and the hot desert sun. The evaporation is causing highly salinized water to be used as irrigation water. This is a major point of discussion and research in the west as water usage is up, the aquifers are being depleted and drought conditions have persisted they must find an economical method to remove the salt enough the crops are not affected.
As we neared the exit for Mexico off I-80 we saw many, many billboards advertising cheap dental, optical and plastic surgery in Mexico. Many US residents cross the border to get medical services cheaply if they don’t have insurance or can’t afford the procedures in the US. We also saw farm fields thriving where irrigated. Sand dunes when not. And black lava cones in places where volcanos have left black, sandy material.
We took a slight detour to see the wall between the US and Mexican border.
We had a potty break at the Algodones Sand Dunes (above). Same vault toilets we saw in Arizona. No water to wash up.
We stopped for lunch at the picnic area of the Salton Sea. There were vault toilets and very nice, covered picnic tables. We had pre-selected sandwiches (turkey for me) potato chips, a cookie and an apple, with choice of soft drinks. Water was always available in coolers under the bus but we were encouraged to continuously refill our re-usable water bottles.
The area that is now the Salton Sea lies along the San Andreas Fault. The tension in the tectonic plates pushing in opposite directions created a sunken basin. The Colorado River has constantly moved its banks over millions of years dropping sediment and washing it away. It has alternatively emptied into the sunken basin or into the Gulf of California (in Mexico south of western Arizona). Study of the surrounding area has shown a repeated cycle of filling and drying over thousand of years. Archeological studies show the lake was filled at least 3 times over the past 1300 years. When the lake was full, Native American people would be attracted to its shores. Hundreds of sites indicating habitation, some long term villages and some temporary camps, have been studied. The Cahuilla peoples have an oral memory of the last lake that existed in the 17th century and had dried up by 1700.
In 1900 the California Development Company began the Alamo Canal to bring Colorado River water to the Salton Sink. The canal soon became filled with silt (this is still a common problem in the canals). In 1905 heavy snowmelt and rainfall caused the Colorado River to swell sending the water into the Alamo Canal, which overflowed and broke its banks and the water eventually found its way to the Salton Sink. Over two years the entire volume of the Colorado River flowed into the Salton Sink. As the sink filled the town of Salton, a railroad siding and Torres-Martinez Native-American lands were submerged. The Salton Sea was born.
The Salton Sea is about 200 feet below sea level and does not flow out via a river. These lakes, with no outlet are called endorheic lakes. The water in them either seeps into the ground or evaporates. As the water dries up, all the salts it is carrying deposits in the remaining water which now has a high salt count. Eventually the sea would have slowly dried up completely but as the farm land was irrigated the runoff water flowed back into the Salton Sea
During the 1950’s and 60’s the Salton Sea was a popular hot spot for tourists due to its location in Southern California. The wetlands around the lake attracted many birds due to the large fish population in the lake. Tourists came to boat, waterski and fish the lake and bird watch. Communities grew up all along the lake. At that time the salt level was no way near what it is now. In the 1970’s as the salinity rose and fertilizers flowed into it from nearby farms the Salton Sea lost its popularity.
By the late 1970’s the farmland runoff was depositing high amounts of salts, selenium and fertilizers (mainly nitrates) into the Salton Sea. This was making the lake inhospitable to the fish and then the birds. Also in the 1970’s this area saw a series of tropical storms cause the sea level to raise and damage the villages and businesses, some beyond repair. Tourism was reduced and the resorts and supporting infrastructure were abandoned.
In the 1990’s the shoreline was littered with dead fish that couldn’t survive in the salty water. Fertilizers caused algae blooms. Botulism spread among the dying tilapia which were eaten by the birds. During a four month period in 1996,14,000 birds died from eating the fish, 10,000 of which were pelicans. The carcasses of the dead birds were burned in an incinerator working 24 hours/day for weeks.
A former Palm Springs mayor and then Congressional Representative to that area, Sonny Bono, became an advocate for the clean-up effort. Following his death in a skiing accident in 1998, other politicians took up the cause as a form of tribute to Bono. Congress passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998. In 1999, the lake began to recede dramatically. The dropping water level stranded any remaining boat docks and once waterfront properties were no longer on the water.
Studies were done, proposals were written, alternative solutions were studied throughout the 2000’s. The September 11, 2001 attacks and the recession of the mid 2000’s diverted the public’s interest. Local agriculture had become more efficient at using water by installing sprinklers to replace flood irrigation and using soil monitors to tell them when to water. The Imperial Irrigation District had been required per agreement to put water back into the Salton Sea to make up for the reduction of run-off water needed to replenish the sea. That agreement ended in 2018 and the flow of water into the sea was reduced by 40%.
As the lake continued to dry up, more lake bed was exposed, releasing toxic dust into the air. The residents of the area have disproportionally higher rates of asthma and respiratory complications due to the high concentration of contaminates in the air. The issue of environmental justice has been raised as 85% of the 650,000 people in the immediate area are Latinos. Lower concentrations of this air blows into Arizona and Southern California. Residents of Los Angeles, 150 miles away, complained about odors that drifted their way in 2012 after a biomass on the bottom of the lake was churned up during a storm.
While we were there picnicking we saw no residences or businesses. We saw no one swimming or boating. Salts that were once on the lake bottom have formed a crusty, white, salty “beach”. This is the story of a paradise lost. “You call somewhere paradise, kiss it good-bye” (the Eagles)
Our final stop before we reached Palm Springs was a visit to Shield’s Date Palm Gardens, open since 1924. This was a fun stop! There was a very nice garden to stretch your legs. Of course, you could buy many types of dates and products made from them. One of the most popular date-based treats was the date milkshake. It was really yummy! There was also a café on a patio behind the store. I saw dates wrapped in bacon on the menu, AKA Devils on Horseback.
Shields grows more than just dates. There were also orange, lemon and grapefruit trees on the property. Of course, this is not the farm. It is just a showcase for their products.
Date palms can pollinate naturally by wind, bees and other insects, however the proximity of the male date palms to the female is crucial and date production using the natural method is very low. Artificial pollination drastically increases the production of dates. This artificial pollination is performed using the date palm pollen from the mate date palm flowers to pollinate the female date palm flowers. Note the ladder at the top of this date palm tree. This makes it easier to pollinate the flower and then pick the fruit.
As I walked through the garden I came to vignettes of the Life of Jesus. Since his life would have been in a desert land such as this, it was the perfect setting for these statues.
If you are ever in this area of California I would suggest you stop by Shields Date Garden, take the walk and try to get there at mealtime and sit out on the patio in a very relaxing setting.
We finally got to Palm Springs and checked into the Palms Springs Hyatt and had only a short time on our own before we had a buffet dinner at the hotel. Not high cuisine but very convenient. Then a lifetime local resident and real estate agent talked about “The Fabulous Faces of the Fifties” in Palm Springs. Mainly she talked about Hollywood types who came to play tennis, swim and relax in Palm Springs. She explained the reason they all came to Palm Springs was that in most Hollywood contracts there was a clause that while filming, the actors must be able to get to the studio within two hours after receiving a call. Palm Springs was a beautiful place that fit that criteria.
It had been a long day and we went to our rooms early. This Hyatt was well beyond the 3 star hotels we Road Scholars are used to. It was right on the main street of Palm Springs. Great restaurants, bars and shops were within easy walking distance. Most of us had a balcony facing the street. The room had a bedroom and a sitting room. Very nice, but no maid service the entire time. Only one person appeared to be at the front desk and a lot of time it was unmanned. The air conditioning did not do a good job of cooling the bedroom but the sitting room was comfortable. I slept there one night on the overlarge couch, with the sliding glass door to the balcony open and my roommate got it another night.