Doc scans sea of salty trouble in the desert

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      Director Chris Metzler confesses he wound up in the "Gaslight district" on his first trip to Vancouver over a decade ago.

      "Gastown, right," Metzler interjects, correcting himself in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from his San Francisco home. When he and fellow Californian director Jeff Springer declined some local pot, because they "weren't in the mood to purchase at that moment", the dealer ran after them offering them crack.

      "I guess we looked like guys that might be into crack more than weed," he speculated.

      Metzler remembers the exchange as a "bizarre experience". This week, he's heading north again to talk about a set of new bizarre experiences he and Springer (codirector of the project) collected over four years in Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.

      The 73-minute documentary screens this Friday to Sunday (July 20 to 22) at the Pacific Cinemathí¨que. Metzler will be present to answer questions. The Salton Sea, located in the southeastern corner of California, is a lake in a desert basin known as the Salton Sink. This body of water covers a surface area of 974 square kilometres, making it the largest lake in California, larger than Lake Tahoe.

      In 1905, during construction of an aqueduct designed to irrigate burgeoning California farms, the Colorado River overran a shoddily built dam and flooded the nearby Imperial and Coachella valleys. It took engineers two years to redirect waterflow back into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it was over, a freshwater lake had been created in the arid desert. Mineral deposits in the basin increased its salinity levels, and imported fish turned the disaster into a sports-fishing goldmine and first-class destination by the 1950s.

      Since that time there have been hurricanes, floods, a botulism outbreak causing mass fish die-off, and attempts by former singer and onetime congressman Sonny Bono to save the area. Bono died in a skiing accident before he could accomplish his goal. Metzler and Springer document all this in their carefully compiled and well-metered narrative, with the help of narrator John Waters. The human stars of the show include a roadside nudist, a man building a religious mountain out of mud and paint, and a former Hungarian revolutionary called Hunky Daddy.

      "Hunky Daddy, Donald the Nudist, and Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, are really what the Salton Sea has become and what the Salton Sea does best in the way that people have reinterpreted it," Metzler said.

      Despite the fight, the fate of the sea remains uncertain, due to the fact that it is one of California's last remaining wetland areas. Thirsty urbanites in Los Angeles and San Diego want a piece of the action. Metzler said he and Springer, sceptical of the sea's worth initially, are now big advocates. And Vancouver audiences shouldn't be surprised if they're given a postcard to send to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger urging him to save the sea.

      "Of course there are pluses and minuses when you have somebody of that sort of size and ego as your governor," Metzler said. "Most people in California aren't even aware that the Salton Sea exists. It's this kind of hidden apocalyptic oasis out in the middle of the desert, even though it is so close to San Diego and Los Angeles and Palm Springs. It is a place that has been unfairly maligned by the media at large in Southern California. So it was really just about getting people from outside of California aware of it."

      But as with any socio-environmental conundrum, there are no easy answers to the fate of the Salton Sea.

      "The birds and the people of the area have come to depend on it, and there really is not a replacement of the wetlands for the birds," Metzler said. "And the people who have made their lives down at the Salton Sea have a unique way of living that they could not easily have anywhere else”¦they are part of the ecology also, you know?"

      Adds Metzler: "I give the Salton Sea a 50/50 chance of living. It is going to take some people with money; a combination of money, dreams, and access to power.”¦Some laugh about what Sonny Bono tried to do, or what we are trying now with Governor Schwarzenegger, but you have to have that Hollywood fantasy."