TLEP Circles Salton Sea
Scans Bottom for Coming Attractions
5677 TLEP at the harbor of the former Salton Sea Test Base. Lukas Marxt and Steve Badgett spent several days sonar scanning the target areas offshore, searching for evidence of test bombs dropped in the sea, including Manhattan Project prototypes from early 1945. CLUI photo
THE TERMINAL LAKE EXPLORATION PLATFORM (TLEP) spent a few months on the Salton Sea in 2019, serving as a roving base for a number of independent research projects, and exploring the margins of this increasingly remarkable salty lake in the southeastern corner of California. 
 
Skippered by its builders and designers, Chris Taylor and Steve Badgett, the TLEP was on the water in the spring, based out of the state’s visitor center and campground, at North Shore. The deployment to the sea was supported by its inclusion in the art biennale, Desert X. 
 
Desert X 2019 included a string of commissioned outdoor artworks, mostly clustered around Palm Springs. Visitors connecting the art dots on the map were drawn slowly southeast along Highway 111, eventually leaving gated communities and golf courses behind them at Coachella, to get to the last bits and pieces at the Salton Sea. The last of these bits, and the furthest out, was the TLEP, not even quite on the land, but moored offshore, disembarked from the end of the string of art, to image and orbit the sea, at the end of the drainage, and the bottom of the bowl.
 
From February into April, the platform migrated to different points around the Salton Sea, eventually circling it in a counter-clockwise direction, occasionally shuttling back and forth across the sea, depending on weather conditions.
 
TLEP is an aluminum structure on inflated pontoons, that can be assembled on shore in a few days. Its 420-square foot lower deck is designed to house a few people for several days, and is powered by batteries and propelled by an electric motor. Its roof and upper deck provide shade, and space for a large photovoltaic array that keeps its electrical systems charged. 
 
The structure is a human habitat, somewhere between a ship and a dock, a kind of situational blind, capable of repositioning itself to different observation locations. When it moves, it does so slowly, at a walking pace, rather then hurrying to shrink space and time. In this way too it is responsive to conditions of wind, weather, and climate. Rather than surmounting these forces, it immerses its users in the local environs. 
 
TLEP was developed initially for the Center for Land Use Interpretation to use on the Great Salt Lake, as the Great Salt Lake Exploration Platform (GSLEP).  Over a few years of seasonal deployments on the Great Salt Lake, the platform brought a variety of users, including students, teachers, and practitioners in fields like art, architecture, and landscape, face to face with the lake, absorbing this unique, remote, and entirely altered environment in ways that are rarely experienced. 
 
The deployment to the Salton Sea is part of a broadening of its scope, and a rechristening as TLEP, an acronym which can alternately be read as “Terminal Lake Ex Platform,” where the open-ended “Ex” allows for all of those great words that start with “ex” to be explored and examined (exhibit, exploit, extreme, extrapolate, extract, extraneous…) without favoring or limiting it to any one in particular. An excellent concept, perhaps.
 
The TLEP is heading into the broader West, into other terminal lakes at the bottom of what are known as endorheic basins, places with no drainage to the ocean. Isolated, discrete islands of water on the land. These internal margins are the first to dissolve into a dessiccationscape, by the continuing reduction of water resources, an outcome of human-induced alterations to the local and planetary environment. Few terminal lakes, though, are as altered as the Salton Sea. 
 
The Salton Sea itself, as most people are aware by now, is the product of a man-made accident, where an irrigation canal was overwhelmed by the Colorado River in 1905, causing this arid and below sea level valley to be flooded, forming a 35-mile long lake. Railways, roads, buildings, a salt factory, telephone poles, agricultural fields, and Indian reservation land were buried by water.
 
Over the years the Salton Sea grew, as it became a sink for the disposal of agricultural wastewater and runoff for one of the most productive industrial agricultural area in the nation, the Imperial Valley, at its southern shore. The Whitewater River, entering the sea at its northern shore, drains the Palm Springs and Coachella region, an urban area with a population of 500,000 people, and more than 100 golf courses. 
 
Added to this nutrient rich soup over the preceding century are thousands of military practice bombs, several crashed airplanes, sunk boats, unspecified dumpings, and the many shoreline developments from the 1920s to 1960s that were swallowed up as the sea grew steadily, like a blob. In the 1940s, the Navy built a seaplane practice base and brought other small crafts from the Pacific—with barnacles attached. Now the entire bottom of the sea and everything in it is covered in a crust of barnacles. 
 
5678 At the south end of the Sea, TLEP crew came ashore via the canoe to explore Mullet Island, for many years the only island in the sea, and now connected to the shore by a muddy peninsula. The island is covered in bird guano, and contains the foundations of a resort/gallery/marina/bar known as Hell’s Kitchen, dating from the 1920s. CLUI photo
Imported alien fish, migratory and nesting birds, and swarms of flying bugs have boomed and busted in the sea, in various ways. Overstuffed with nutrients and invasive organisms, accelerated cycles of generation and destruction, as each induced over abundance of life is followed by suffocation and collapse. Over and over, faster and faster, with unattenuated explosions and implosions of ecological stability. These convulsions culminated in recent years with the last gasps of the remaining tilapia that suffocate in the summer when algae blooms soak up all the oxygen in the water, and a crusty dead fish beachscape forms along the shore. 
 
All of this, however, is coming to an end, if it hasn’t already, and in fact has started to reverse. Salinity has increased, so that the tilapia and many other organisms are nearly gone, and flooding has been stopped by legislation. As of the first of January, 2018, water is no longer dumped into the sea. Instead it is treated, reused, or sent to San Diego. So now the sea is shrinking, and getting saltier, evaporating at a rate of around one or two feet a year.  
 
Since the sea is only 40 feet deep at its deepest point, it could be gone in as little as 20 years. This, however, is unlikely, as things will get so bad before that, that something will be done. The exposure of the shore and sediments, picked up by the wind, is likely to produce toxic dust storms that will make Owens Lake look like a walk in a park, some say. And unlike Owens Lake, there are many more people downwind here than at Owens Lake.
 
What, exactly, will be done is very much up in the air. Proposals, including building aqueducts to bring water from the Pacific Ocean, are being considered. But for now, at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, what has been underwater for the last century, is now, slowly, being exposed. What we thought was maybe gone forever, forgotten, and away, is coming back into the world—encrusted in barnacles. ♦
 
One of the functions of the TLEP as it traveled around the Salton Sea was to scan the bottom using sonar, to see what there is to see, a kind of “coming attractions” from a submerged landscape frozen in time. In this way the TLEP was a flatbed scanner, hovering over the underwater ground, like a surveillance aircraft flying at a fixed altitude through aqueous air, over a future landscape, immersed in amniotic fluid, as yet unborn.
 
5679 What was revealed by the scans is hard to tell. The sonar recorded circular fields of tilapia nests, some telephone poles, tree trunks, and lots of indistinct forms. Interpretation of these images and artifacts is ongoing. CLUI photo
 
5680 The TLEP had a removable screen so that it could present its sonar scans to visitors on the shore. It also travelled the sea at night, projecting the scans live to whoever was watching. CLUI photo
 
5681 An evening of Salton Sea films was also presented for an audience on the shore at the State Park, featuring a reel of trailers of some of the many films shot at the sea, including: "The Bad Batch" (2016), "Future World" (2018), "The Monster that Challenged the World" (1957), "Little Birds" (2011), "Dead Sea" (2014), "Bombay Beach" (2011), "Salton Sea" (2002), and "Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea," Chris Metzler’s 2004 documentary narrated by John Waters. CLUI photo