Standing on the weathered dock behind his modest home in Salton City, Norm Niver, 81, must be channeling those days of yesteryear. “It’s a panoramic view from here,” he says as he brushes flies away from his face and looks across the Sea to the Chocolate Mountains in the distance. “It’s paradise. You can smell the dead fish today. … It’s not too bad, though.”
A faint smell of fish sticks wafts up from Niver’s beach, which isn’t exactly sand but rather a flat shore covered with an encrustation from decades of dying barnacles and desiccated fish bones. Fish carcasses like these heralded the end of California’s Riviera in the late 1970s and the 1980s — not long after Niver moved in — when chemical reactions from algae blooms and decaying biomatter sucked the oxygen out of the Sea, leading to massive fish die-offs. Salinity levels also kept increasing, further endangering the fish; freak rains and floods condemned Salton City’s Salton Bay Yacht Club and destroyed shoreline resorts, leading developers to abandon plans and rip out marinas. And, as a final blow, celebrities decamped to other freshwater lakes formed by new dams.
Niver stayed. He couldn’t afford to leave. But the retired musician and jack-of-all-trades insists that he wouldn’t want to move even if he could.
“I like the weather. I like the quiet. I like the view,” he says as we drive around Salton City’s hopefully named streets: Sea Nymph, Shore Jewel, Honolulu, Montego. Touring Salton City feels like showing up at a party long, long after everyone’s left: Streets have been paved, lots surveyed, sewer lines dug, but almost no one’s here. “It’s a stick farm,” Niver says, gesturing at the telephone poles that far outnumber the houses. Of the 20,000 subdivided lots, only a few hundred ever had homes built on them.
Niver refuses to let it get him down. He sighs at the roads to nowhere, the encroaching sagebrush, and the withered, orphaned palm trees. He shakes his head at the abandoned keys and marinas, at the deserted town center, and at the desperately insistent “For Sale” signs perched in front of boarded-up new construction sites. But rather than get bitter, Niver has turned himself into a relentlessly optimistic mascot for Salton City. He gives tours to reporters and film crews. He drinks a glass of Salton Sea water for anyone who asks. And, with just a little encouragement, he will show off the broken-down computer chair on his dock. “I strapped myself in and caught a 20-pound corvina in that chair,” he boasts.
It’s been awhile since that victory, though. Once, hundreds of millions of fish lived in the lake. But the Sea’s ever-increasing salinity has led to a killing of all the fish save the tilapia. An estimated 14 million of the Sea’s fish died in 2000, and then 21 million in 2001, the year most of the corvina and croaker died out.
“This place has been projected to be the biggest city in Imperial County for years,” says Niver, who also serves on the county planning commission. “[We’d] grow if not faced with these giant fish kills.”
But not everything abandoned the area. Attracted by a large, productive body of water in the middle of the desert, birds have continued flocking to the Salton Sea in the millions. As coastal development and water diversions took up 90 to 95 percent of California’s wetlands, the birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway turned to the desert lake as a giant avian truck stop: The Sea gives them a place to rest, refuel, even nest for a while.
Birders have observed 424 species here, nearly making the Salton Sea the nation’s most diverse birding location, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. More than 50 endangered or threatened species stop here while flying north and south, including 40 percent of the endangered Yuma clapper rail population and tens of thousands of ducks and geese that spend the winter here.
It’s difficult to hear Chris Shoneman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Manager, as we stand on a berm next to a constructed nesting pond at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on the southeastern shore. Caspian terns call raucously to each other while hundreds of white and brown pelicans bank and dive for tilapia. It’s like standing in the middle of a National Geographic special.
Over the cawing, cackling, and splashing din, Shoneman explains how the refuge must be managed intensively by constructing ponds and nesting islands for breeding birds; installing electrified fences to keep raccoons from raiding the nests of rare species; growing forage crops that appeal to birds to discourage them from raiding the nearby Imperial Valley fields, which supply approximately 85 percent of the nation’s winter vegetable crop; and regularly monitoring to keep track of avian botulism, which killed tens of thousands of birds in the 1990s.