Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea: Who Knew John Waters Was an Environmentalist?

In February, as plans for a $6 billion Salton Sea rehab project were being fought over (where to preserve nature? where to unleash the Jet Skis?), California newspapers reported that hundreds of thousands of dead fish had been discovered along the inland ocean's shores. Readers could only wonder, "How did anyone notice?" The Imperial Valley waterway makes the troubled Sea of Aral look like Lake Tahoe by comparison and has become the mother of all metaphors—a cautionary ecological fable, a symbol of real-estate schemes gone bust and the California Dream turned to alkaline dust. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's documentary, narrated with surprising empathy by John Waters, is a historically thorough and thoroughly hysterical examination of the big, smelly desert lake's formation (breached Colorado River levee), its tourist heyday (1960s), and the grim odds against revitalization. Interviews conducted all around the sea focus on the mostly elderly locals—notably a profane, drunken Hungarian known as Hunky Daddy—along with fish-and-game wardens, and kids from Bombay Beach's growing African American community. The young blacks seem marooned in this blasted desert oasis, yet more poignant is their palpable fear of the violent Los Angeles they fled.

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