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#ISeeChange at the Salton Sea: Dropping levels, growing salt, and drought worries

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Randy Brown set an obscure record, walking 116 miles around the shoreline of the Salton Sea. He wants people to pay more attention to its fate.

An Inland Empire man on Sunday set an obscure record: Randy Brown walked 116 miles around the shoreline of the Salton Sea, the first person to do so.

The Salton Sea is not actually a sea. It's a salty lake few Californians know about, in a sunken part of the Colorado Desert that has cycled between dry and wet times over millions of years.

Brown is part of a community of people at the southern end of the Coachella Valley who have been observing up close the sea’s receding shores. About two dozen of those locals gathered at the Vista del Mar Clubhouse, also known as The Dome, to greet Brown halfway through his journey last Friday.

Buffeted by a gentle breeze, basking in 100-degree heat, Brown’s supporters grilled burgers and hot dogs, sipped soda and joked as the ice in their drinks instantly melted.

What they don’t find funny is the dropping lake elevation. “I put a stake out there seven years ago when I first came out here. And it’s probably 200 to 300 feet below where I put the stake,” said Skeeter Malcolm, the clubhouse caretaker and chief burger flipper. “So I seen it for myself.”

This lake was created over a century ago, accidentally. Agricultural runoff is the Salton Sea’s major source. A complicated agreement among water agencies, San Diego and the state of California took more water away from the sea in 2003 – essentially putting the sea on life support. This agreement’s imminent expiration, and the state’s slow steps towards a promised recovery, have Brown and his friends feeling protective of their incomplete, inhospitable and desolate landscape.

He sees plenty walking along the shore. “The first thing I noticed was how much it changed from the time I was there camping here as a kid versus now. In 30 years, the water has dropped hundreds of yards, a quarter of a mile in some places,” Brown says. “I’ve noticed the place basically kind of dying. So everything from abandoned buildings and dried marines. It makes me sad, all around.”

The lake is now twice as salty as the Pacific. Swimming in the Salton Sea can leave a fine coat of brine shrimp on your skin. Dead fish rot in the heat. So instead on Friday, Brown and his friends cooled off in the clubhouse pool.  

Brown hit his share of speed bumps along the way. Unexpected rain on the first day created unexpected mud. He spent another day pressing forward around canals and rivers, and part of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

Throughout his trip, he carried spare socks, shoes and 25 pounds of water.

“I gotta stay dry on the outside and hydrated on the inside,” he said.  

The most tortuous stretch of his six-day walk came near the end, in an area he calls Death Beach.

“Part of the reason is because the shoreline is so covered with dead barnacle shells. It’s like a foot deep, so it’s like you step into them and it goes up to your ankles. it’s like going up a StairMaster for miles,” he said. “Then sometimes you get unlucky, and your foot drops through that dead barnacles into wet stinky water.”

He says it’s almost too hot to think out there, which is the part of the challenge. “I like to say that nobody wants to see the daredevil jump his motorcycle over just one bus; they want to see him jump it over 20 busses.”

Randy’s dare started out personal. Six years ago he began walking more, for his health. This walk became his “dream-adventure.” Today, he calls the Salton Sea hot, humid, smelly, dirty and lonely.

“But I also notice the beauty,” he says. “The clouds and the sunsets. I don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful sunset than from the east side of Salton Sea.”

The drought wasn’t why he walked – but Brown says it makes his cause more urgent. The quantification settlement agreement governing water among the Imperial Irrigation District and San Diego County is up in two years. After that, the fate of the sea is unclear.

“Yeah, You think about water. and that’s now a problem cause we need that water. We need it! Well, what about Salton Sea, what are we going to do?” he said.

What Randy Brown wants is for people to pay attention to the Salton Sea the way he does.

#ISeeChange is a national effort to track how climate change is affecting our daily lives. 

Notice any bugs in your backyard lately? Wondering why you're seeing coyotes where you don't expect? Seen changes in your favorite tide pool? Snap a picture and tag it @KPCC and #ISeeChange on Twitter or Instagram, let us know through our Public Insight Network, or post your questions on Then see what others have found and observed in their environment.

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