Toxic dust and abandonment: ‘Irondad’ treks around the Salton Sea amid ecological crisis

Toxic dust and abandonment: ‘Irondad’ treks around the Salton Sea amid ecological crisis

Video above: This video shows Irondad’s 2023 Salton Sea Run. (Drone video credit:  Christopher Gallo)

SALTON SEA, Calif. (FOX 5/ KUSI) — “I can experience minor hallucinations,” said Irondad, while describing his trek around the edge of the mystical Salton Sea.

He’s an activist, artist and ultra-endurance athlete bringing attention to the toxic dust emitted near the shallow, landlocked and highly saline body of water that touches both Riverside and Imperial counties.

Born by the name of William Sinclair, the 49-year-old has completed several long-form triathlons and ultramarathons, earning the benchmark of Irondad through those feats as well as his air of gravitas.

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A resident of the once thriving Bombay Beach, he divides his time between working, training and creating art installations — something the area is widely known for, much of it built on the dry playa that was once the seabed.

“I’m very active in the community here, contributing a lot of my time to Bombay Beach Arts and Culture (BBAC),” Irondad told FOX 5. “So my life in Bombay Beach is — in a word — busy.”

Here’s a look of some his art installations, and what inspired them (details in the photo captions):

  • Free Love Phone Booth
    “The Free Love Phone Booth was originally built in 2021,” said Irondad. “It lights up at night, and in my opinion that’s when it’s most photogenic. (Credit: Irondad)
  • Nameless
    Called “Nameless, he explained some people consider it land art. “It’s about as long as a football field but it’s actually a memorial I built for an unidentified corpse I found on the shore while training for the first run. (Credit: Irondad)
  • The Salton Swan
    The Salton Swan is a working paddleboat that is intended to play off of the whimsical paddleboats you might see in a park pond,” said IRondad. ” But she swims on the Salton Sea, so she’s a skeleton. She was built in 2022. (Credit: Irondad)
  • The Lemonade Stand
    The Lemonade Stand he said was built with a friend for the kids of Bombay Beach to sell lemonade to tourists who come through town. (Credit: Irondad)

When describing what it’s like to live in the area, he said there’s honestly no place like home.

A look back

The census-designated place was once a resort town with hotels that were frequented by celebrities like Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and even Bing Crosby. That was until the Salton Sea turned vile.

The modern lake was formed in the early 1900s from an inflow of water from the Colorado River, with an irrigation canal later being dug to the old Alamo River channel to provide water to the Imperial Valley for farming.

Later, it was reported that farmers used generous amounts of Colorado River water for irrigation and let the excess flow into the lake. Contamination from farm runoff led to the outbreak and spread of wildlife diseases in the 80s, with the extreme salinity killing off fish whose carcasses could be seen and smelled along the beaches.

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That’s when tourism declined.

Local agriculturists began using the water more efficiently, so less runoff would flow into the lake. But as the lake bed became exposed, the Salton Sea began to shrink. It was then reported that the winds started sending clouds of toxic dust into the nearby communities.

“Few issues need the attention of Californians more than the ecological crisis here at the Salton Sea. Since 2018, the sea has been shrinking at a rapid rate, exposing vast playas that emit toxic dust in the air as the wind blows across them,” said Irondad.

He said the majority of the fish and bird populations have been wiped out in the area, and he’s now concerned about locals who he says are threatened by the toxic airborne dust.

“Two years ago, one of the children in our town succumbed to asthma that was exacerbated by the dust,” Irondad told FOX 5. “We can’t keep letting this happen.”

Salton Sea Run

As a way to bring attention to this unfolding ecological crisis, Irondad created a multi-year project known as the Salton Sea Run, which first launched in 2023.

He runs the shoreline of the sea in one trek, so a total distance of around 95 miles in about 30 hours. While doing so, he tracks his GPS coordinates at one-second intervals to create an outline of the shore for that year, which says couldn’t be captured by any other means.

“Comparing the outlines from each year, we can see how the Salton Sea is changing over time,” Irondad explained. Here’s a look at last year’s outline:

(Credit: Irondad)
(Credit: Irondad)

During his long run, Irondad wears a face mask to protect his lungs from the dust blown off of exposed playa and snowshoes to avoid sinking into the soft mudflats that were – until recently – seabed.

“I visit some breathtakingly beautiful areas on the run. I have to keep my mind on making forward progress, however, it’s almost 100 miles to get behind me!” Irondad reflected. “Near the end of the run, when I’ve been up 30+ hours, I can experience minor hallucinations. Last year, driftwood looked like people sitting on the beaches, and white-capping waves looked like boats on the water. I had to remind myself that these scenes are long gone.”

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Despite the pernicious nature of the shrinking Salton Sea, he said it’s always beautiful.

Irondad started his second-year run in the early hours of Saturday, March 9. His progress can be tracked here. He’s also planning to reveal new art installations during the trek.

Irondad
Irondad

Solution

“There’s no panacea to be prescribed for the situation here. If legions of scientists can’t figure out what to do and armies of policy and lawmakers can’t figure out how to make it happen, I can’t offer a simple, workable solution to the problems we face,” said Irondad.

However, he explained that there are options to mitigate the airborne dust– some better than others. For instance, Irondad said he would like to see more wetlands created and less “surface roughening” that scars the land.

The running artist and activist would also like to see less “vegetation pilot projects” that he says are “ineffectual” and “litter the shores with straw bales as far as the eye can see.”

“I think we should instead invest in preserving the natural beauty of this region and bring back some of the wildlife that have made it home. The long-term solution that many of us prefer is bringing the water back to the sea that had sustained it at the same size for decades,” said Irondad.

To learn more about how you can help save the Salton Sea, this Bombay Beach local suggests visiting EcoMedia Compass.

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