The Salton Sea may be the last place on earth you’d expect to find people growing bamboo. In fact, it may be the last place on earth you’d expect to find people doing anything besides drinking beer, swatting flies and sweating bullets. Summer temperatures in this remote corner of California typically exceed 120º, and the acres of fish carcasses that line the seashore can produce a stink like no other. Hence the plague of houseflies.  

The Salton Sea, formerly the Salton Sink, is a geological anomaly at nearly 300 feet below sea level, and something of an environmental catastrophe. In 1905, a spectacular engineering foul-up diverted millions of gallons of the Colorado River and filled the desert basin with water. Over the course of 16 months, the sink became a lake. But spend any amount of time here, and it begins to feel like you’re circling the drain. The bleak desolation defies the imagination. 

Bamboo cultivation is the latest in a long line of proposals to preserve the degrading lake, protect the languishing wildlife and revitalize the Salton Sea community. Bamboo needs a lot less water than most people think, and it can serve as a resilient pioneer plant, capable of growing in barren landscapes. And it grows quickly. Once established, the bamboo can provide a windbreak, create shade, and help the soil to retain moisture. All of this contributes to a more conducive environment for other species, both flora and fauna.

What happened to the Salton Sea?

The rise

The history of the Salton Sea is a story of unlikely circumstances, unsettling accidents and unintended consequences. In 1900, irrigation canals began diverting water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley and Salton Sink, where mineral-rich soil allowed for excellent farming. But it didn’t take long for silt to collect, block the canals, and cut off the water supply to the basin. Then, in 1905, heavy rains came and overwhelmed the irrigation infrastructure, creating multiple waterways that quickly flooded the Salton Sink.

Engineering teams from the Southern Pacific Railroad took a year and a half to stop the flooding and correct the canal headgates at the Colorado River. By that time, the small township of Salton was entirely submerged, and the Imperial Valley had itself a brand new lake.

It didn’t take long for tourists to discover this oasis in the middle of the desert. For years it was a destination on par with Palm Springs, just 60 miles to the north. The low elevation and high salt levels made the lake ideal for water skiing and other recreational activities. Later, they stocked the lake with fish, and they absolutely flourished. The Salton Sea offered some of the best saltwater fishing in the country, if not the world. Tourists were flocking, resorts were booming, and the future was bright.

And the fall

In the late 1970s, exceptionally heavy rainfalls brought more flooding. For residents living along the shore of a lake that had only suddenly appeared several decades earlier, the flooding should have come as no surprise. But they were shocked and devastated. Week after week, waterfront properties were swallowed up by rising waters. And things were never the same after that.

The influx of water permanently altered the salinity of the lake. Algae blooms killed millions of fish, and the rotting carnage created a stench of apocalyptic proportions. At the same time, agricultural runoff from throughout the Imperial Valley was increasingly making its way to the lake. Fish were dying off in astonishing numbers, and the water foul hardly fared better.

Carnage on the Salton Sea
In the 1980’s, the Salton Sea’s fish population started dying off on an apocalyptic scale. Millions of carcasses piled up on the shore, resulting in an unimaginable aroma and unpleasant insect problem.

Once a mecca for tourists seeking to escape cold winters elsewhere in the country, to swim, fish and water ski, the Salton Sea is now a symbol of human misery and environmental devastation. Residents and speculators were once buying property like this was going to be the next Palm Springs. Today their assets are worthless, and many live there only as a last resort. It’s all they can afford.

Migratory birds continue to visit the Salton Sea because development has swallowed up the vast majority of California estuaries and wetlands. For many of those birds, this is their last stop. Salinity and agricultural runoff have turned the lake into a sea of dying fish and a festering cesspool of botulism.

Today the only visitors attracted to the lake are those interested in disaster tourism. For the globetrotter who thinks he’s seen everything, the Salton Sea is a place for the bucket list. A very special kind of bucket.

Can bamboo save the Salton Sea?

After decades of failed attempts to restore the lake and the area’s recreational tourism, some believe that bamboo may offer a solution. At this point, they’re willing to try anything. But bamboo grower Christian Lydick’s enthusiasm is not entirely unfounded.

Lydick operates a small nursery in El Centro, where he specializes in drought-tolerant varieties of bamboo. You might associate bamboo with the tropical climates of Hawaii and Southeast Asia, but there are more than 1,400 species of bamboo, and many can grow quite well with little water.

As a grass, bamboo needs regular watering, but the roots are shallow. Once established, a bamboo grove creates it own shade and drops enough leaves to provide a bit of mulch. In this way, the plant helps the desert soil to retain moisture. It requires far less water than a green lawn or the golf courses you find in Palm Springs.

Bamboo also provides an excellent windbreak, which can be crucial in the desert. High winds are common in the Imperial Valley. They not only strip the topsoil, but they also carry the air, heavy with pesticides, from the farmland to the neighborhoods. Respiratory issues are all too common around the Salton Sea, El Centro and the surrounding areas. What better way to create a bit of shelter and privacy than with a lush, drought-tolerant bamboo hedge? Protect the lungs and soothe the soul.

Still, some remain skeptical. The Salton Sea has experienced one catastrophe after another. Most consider it to be the greatest environmental disaster in California history. It’s hard to believe that a forest of bamboo could rescue it from such decay. On the other hand, bamboo is something of a miracle plant. So why not give it a chance?

Bamboo farming in the Colorado Desert

Lydick’s vision for bamboo cultivation in the Imperial Valley goes beyond a few residential privacy hedges and windbreaks. Christian and his daughter, Lauren, are advocating for widespread bamboo farming across the desert. In her early 20s, she recognizes climate change as the greatest challenge of her generation. And coming from a family of bamboo growers, she sees it as her best chance of making a difference.

Every day new uses for bamboo are being discovered, and the possibility of growing bamboo for profit seems more and more viable and practical. The Lydicks are hopeful that they, or other investors, can grow bamboo for ethanol, to be used as a sustainable fuel source. The Imperial Valley has irrigation, and bamboo would require less of it than most any other crops currently growing there. Moreover, bamboo requires no pesticides. The heavy use of chemical sprays like chlorpyrifos on local farmland has proven harmful to many members of the community.

Carbon sequestration is one more benefit of growing bamboo. The plant can capture great quantities of carbon in its root biomass. And when bamboo is harvested, the plant and its roots remain alive and intact. That means the carbon sink is not released back into the atmosphere at the end of each season. Furthermore, bamboo can produce about 35% more oxygen than an equal area of trees.

Easy to grow and light on the earth, it’s hard to imagine a better way to green the desert than by planting bamboo.

Further reading

If you enjoyed reading about bamboo at the Salton Sea, you might also want to check out some of these interesting articles.

FEATURED IMAGE: A boat grounded in dry mud, next to the Marina on the western shore of the Salton Sea, CA. (Wikicommons)