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2017 Pro-Am Student Award winner

Turning Tides: The Story of the Salton Sea

About the Project

Standing at the edge of California’s largest lake isn’t a common experience. It’s surrounded by agriculture and small, mostly low-income communities, about an hour and a half from Palm Springs and about 45 minutes from Coachella. There’s little reason to go to this receding lake, where growing salinity causes dead fish to rot on the shore and the once-thriving tourism spot sees little recreation. But the Salton Sea could become California’s largest environmental disaster. The toxic dust is already affecting the communities around the Salton Sea, where asthma rates are high, especially for children.

While standing at the edge of the Salton Sea may not be common, a virtual reality journalism series by JOVRNALISM, produced in partnership with The Desert Sun, introduces viewers to the people, the industry, the history, the science and the potential solutions.

The immersive storytelling pieces, both explanatory and empathy-building, tell the complex story of the Salton Sea and the urgency to decide on a plan before the spigot of mitigation water turns off at the end of 2017.

In the series:

  • Understand the science behind the rising salinity, why the fish die and why it emits the smell that wafts over the nearby Coachella Valley (and some times as far as Los Angeles).
  • Learn about the toxic dust that is affecting local communities now, but if the Salton Sea dries up, could float as far as L.A.
  • Meet a little girl who has to watch the air quality monitors at her school to know if she can play outside.
  • Go inside the Torres Martinez Cahuilla reservation and hear from tribal members, whose land has been by the Salton Sea, even before the current lake was formed.
  • Listen to a farmer explain the impact of the thriving agriculture in the desert, which is linked with the Sea through agreements for Colorado River water.
  • Go back in time and hear about the golden era of the Salton Sea, of Sinatra and boat races.
  • Consider the solutions.

All this in a student-led, immersive project that uses cutting edge technology (360 cameras, drones and more) all in the service to create a compelling news story.

While this project is a partnership with The Desert Sun, all the immersive experiences are produced by the students. They did the research, the reporting, the production and post-production. The Sun staff guided students editorially, ensuring the project accurately reflects the local community.

JOVRNALISM is a project/hackathon-style course at USC led by Prof. Robert Hernandez, which has produced immersive pieces for the NYTimes, NPR, ProPublica, CIR/Reveal News and more.