The dying lake faded into an eerie haze as we stood atop a layer of sun-bleached fish carcasses. The lack of wind and numbing silence only added to the surreal feeling of standing at the edge of the world, teetering toward an apocalyptic end of days. The springtime road trip had brought my son and I to witness the continuing demise of the Salton Sea. With a surface area of 240,000 acres, it’s officially recognized as California’s largest lake, nearly double the size of Lake Tahoe in coverage (in terms of volume, Tahoe is the larger of the two lakes.) This brackish body of water extends into both the Coachella and Imperial valleys of California.
For thousands of years, the Colorado River flowed in and out of the Imperial Valley, alternately creating a freshwater lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a dry desert basin—the cycles dependent upon river flow and evaporation. The Salton Sea’s accidental manmade birth occurred in 1905. In an effort to increase water resources into the area for farming, irrigation canals were dug that linked the Colorado River to the valley. As silt built up in the canals, a cut was made in the bank of the Colorado River to further increase waterflow. When an unexpected gain in volume breached one of the canals, the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, filling the historic dry lake bed and creating the present water body.
For a time, the area was marketed as the California version of the “French Riviera.” The strange sea in the middle of the desert turned into a highly successful oasis resort. Before it was destroyed by flooding (by the very sea itself), Bombay Beach was meant to be a playground for rich vacationers in the 1940s and ’50s. And then the sea began to die.
Understanding the Salton Sea, and efforts to save it from a slow death, is a complicated task. Today, small creeks, drainage systems, sewage, and agricultural runoff are the only sources of inflow. The result is a body of water that is now more saline than the Pacific Ocean. Tilapia and pupfish survive in the water, and more than 400 bird species visit the area on their Pacific Flyway migrations. But a huge fish die-off occurs every year, and more recently, waterfowl die-offs have resulted from increasingly poisonous waters. As the lake continues to recede the situation will only get worse, and migrating waterfowl will have no other place to turn to.
Many of the buildings around the Salton Sea are abandoned, and the few residents that hang on mostly live in house trailers, sheltered from the blazing desert sun. Several attempts to save the lake have failed in the past, including a push by Sonny Bono (yes, the same Sonny of “Sonny & Cher”). When serving as a U.S. Representative, Sonny’s Salton Sea restoration efforts were gaining momentum up until his fatal skiing accident at Heavenly Ski Resort. The State of California has since been involved in several efforts to restore the sea, but none have come to fruition.
Increasing concerns include a future where waters eventually evaporate completely, turning the area into a giant dust bowl. Prevailing winds would blow toxic silt across Palm Springs, and maybe into San Diego. Local residents already suffer from asthma and other chronic ailments due to increasing dust.
We walked away from the Salton Sea with a feeling of emptiness, turning our backs to a place where not only the water continued to evaporate into the desert sky.
To learn more about the Salton Sea, the documentary “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea” is available for free on YouTube. This insightful look into the plight of this area is narrated by John Waters.
My next post will feature obscure places of interest near the Salton Sea, including “Slab City” and “Salvation Mountain.”
Good story. The only missing element is the horrible stench that permeates the air periodically.
Good point, Jill. The putrid smell was very strong when we visited (best to use all sensory details when describing!)
Bruce, I promoted an annual event to promote saving Walker Lake in Herlong Nevada. Walker Lake is one of only 22 terminous lakes in the world where water flows in with no outlet. The fresh water supply was diverted by local ranchers and litigation could not save the lake. It was a sacred place for the local native American Indians, tens of thousands of migratory birds and world class fishery. Saline levels ruined this beautiful lake in Nevada. These stories are tragic.
Thanks for the comment, Pat. Walker Lake is definitely another sad story. I hear they can’t run outboard motors out there (of course, why would you?) because the water will ruin any machinery, swimming is out of the question, and there is no longer any possibility for fish survival. I attended a tribal meeting out in Schurz several years ago, and the situation at Walker Lake sounded dire. I applaud your efforts to help save this lake, and wish they could turn the situation around, but it looks bleak.
I need to to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely loved
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Thank you, Standard Oyster Company. I appreciate the comment and hope you enjoy my future posts (if you are so inclined, subscribe for notices.)
Having read this I believed it was very enlightening.
I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this short article together.
I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
But so what, it was still worth it!
Thank you—I appreciate the comment!