The Hard Lesson of California’s Shrinking Salton Sea

California's Salton Sea dried up coastline
Salton Sea of California dried up coastline

California’s largest lake is the infamous man-made Salton Sea, a shallow, salt water lake in the middle of the southern California desert.  It sits just south of Palm Springs and just north of the Mexican border.  At 235 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea lies in what used to be an ancient dry lake bed, only five feet higher than Death Valley.

The original Lake Cahuilla occupied the basin until about 300 years ago as a part of the Colorado River’s path to the Gulf of California.  Silt build-up changed the river’s course to its current path, drying up the lake basin.  The inhospitable area was avoided by man until the early 1900s, when farmers realized that, with massive irrigation from the nearby Colorado River, the soil and climate would produce valuable farmland. A series of canals were built and water flowed into the dry desert.  Soon, more than 10,000 farm workers relocated to the Salton Sink region.  The surrounding area was dubbed “Imperial Valley,” and quickly turned 100,000 acres of desert into rich farm land.

The current Salton Sea was formed completely by human accident.

In the spring of 1905, heavy flood waters on the Colorado River burst through the walls of irrigation canals in southwestern Arizona. Almost the entire Colorado River changed its route, back to its ancient path and began refilling the Salton Basin, inundating the path of the Southern Pacific Railroad line. Initial efforts to seal the breach failed and for 18 months, the river flooded in, filling the Salton basin like a huge bath tub.

Water continued to fill the newly named “Salton Sea” until 1907.  A line of protective levees was built by using railcars, full of boulders, unloaded into the breach. 2,000 workers dumped more than 3,000 railroad cars full of boulders and dirt. It worked!  But by then, a new shallow inland lake was formed, about 40 miles long and 15 wide, covering about 500 square miles, though only 30 feet deep on average. It all seemed unnatural, this shimmering lake surrounded by chalky sand, spiked cactus and dusty tumbleweeds.

Once the canal was repaired, the Salton Sea no longer had an intake source of fresh water.  The new lake was more or less left alone for the next several decades.  Water runoff from the Imperial Valley farms offset the heavy desert evaporation rate and kept the lake alive.  The new sea grew to support an ecosystem that attracted hundreds of species of migratory birds.  Thousands of birds began to spend their winters there every year.  Salt water fish were stocked into the lake and flourished.  By the late 1950’s, the Salton Sea was the most productive fishery in California.

In the 1950’s, developers also saw resort opportunities for the Salton Sea, now California’s largest lake.

Towns like Salton City and Bombay Beach popped up along its shoreline.  Along with the rising popularity of nearby Palm Springs, resorts were built catering to tourists interested in the endless California sunshine. Water skiing, swimming, fishing, and bird watching were quite popular.  Bombay Beach in particular was built as a celebrity destination. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys frequented its luxury resorts. At its peak in the 50’s and 60’, the Salton Sea drew 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite National Park!

However, all was not sunny in southern California.  Little thought and few resources were devoted to the management of this accidental body of water. As a terminal lake, the Salton Sea lacks any outflow.  The agricultural runoff that sustained the lake also contained not only nitrate fertilizers, but herbicides, pesticides like DDT, and high quantities of salt, all of which quietly settled into the mud at the bottom of the shallow lake.

In the 1970s, scientists started warning that the increasing salt would cause the Salton Sea to dry up and shrink, making it inhospitable to wildlife. Sure enough, before the decade was out, fish started dying off and the migratory birds declined. The lake began to smell of sulfur, spurring the state to issue periodic odor advisories. Tourism and its economy quickly began to flee to more marketable locations elsewhere.

As the agricultural runoff drained through the basin’s soil, it combined with natural salt deposits, raising the salinity even further. Over the years, the salinity slowly rose enough to kill off most of the lake’s fish. By the 1980s, the salt level was about 1.5 times higher than the nearby Pacific Ocean.  As the salinity increased, all the fish, except tilapia, stopped reproducing. Tilapia was originally introduced into the Colorado canal system to control algae growth.

In the 1990s, the lake’s shoreline began to recede dramatically, stranding the residences and businesses far from the water’s edge. 

Changing water-management priorities diverted more water from agricultural areas to California’s major southern cities. Scores of stinking dead fish now lined the dry shore line. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to transfer even more water to San Diego County. Farmers were forced to switch from flood to drip irrigation. This change meant there was still enough for agriculture, but not the runoff needed for maintaining the Salton Sea. In return, California was supposed to implement a plan to reduce habitat loss for migrating birds by 2018. But that plan stalled in Sacramento, the lake continued to shrink, and a new Public-Health Crisis was born.

Today, the Salton Sea has yet another problem: Climate change is making this dry desert region even drier. The growing demand for water in the vast suburbs of Southern California (Los Angeles and San Diego) continues to reduce the amount of the Colorado River diverted to the Imperial Valley. These factors dramatically increase the pace at which the Salton Sea is shrinking, exposing more dry lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud for decades. 

The desert winds lift dust from the dry lakebed, and the toxic residue of 100 years of agricultural runoff blows into the air … and into human lungs. The Salton Sea area now has some of the worst air quality in the country. Local residents of Salton City and Bombay Beach have some of the highest rates of respiratory problems in the state. Many of the people who once relied on the lake for their livelihood have left, driven away by lack of tourism, the nauseating stench of the lake, or fear of health problems.

The few who remain – farmworkers, their families, and the elderly are too poor to live elsewhere in CA.

South of the Salton Sea, the Imperial valley still produces 2/3 of the country’s winter fruits and vegetables, but farming the desert requires a heavy cost. The Imperial Irrigation District diverts almost 3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, about half of California’s entire allotment. Ironically, Imperial County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, where today 1 in 4 people live in abject poverty.

Today, the few tourists who arrive, mainly out of curiosity, are careful to come for no more than an hour or two, due of the poor air quality and the continued odor of dying fish. Businesses don’t want to come to the area for the same reasons. The smell was once described by the U.S. Geological Survey and “Noxious and pervasive.

Tourists at Bombay Beach are mostly snowbirds from Palm Beach’s spas and country clubs.  They come to see the ruins of the once-famous party town and resorts.  Across the shrinking, shimmering lake, the brown Santa Rosa Mountains loom on the horizon. The town’s population has shrunk to under 300.  It is described as a modern, living ghost town. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away.  The only market left in town is a small convenience store. The temperature can reach 110 in the summer.  The town is littered with windowless, abandoned homes and trailers, covered in graffiti. Signs warn against swimming in the lake, not that anyone would. The smell of the Salton Sea and dead fish is everywhere.

Salton Sea Bombay Beach sign
Salton Sea Bombay Beach sign

Bird watching used to be very good at the Salton Sea.  But with the sea at such low levels, fewer birds stop there, because there’s less food for them. The locals have noticed fewer birds are coming back each year. Those that don’t get enough food to continue their migration, die on the lake shore, along with the rotting fish.

The California Natural Resource Agency released a Salton Sea Restoration Plan in 2007.

The idea of the plan was to redirect the remaining inflows to small, man-made wetlands, not the lake, that would both suppress dust and recreate bird habitat.   The plan lacked state funding however, and over the years, promises of money evaporated just like the Salton Sea as political priorities and parties shifted in Sacramento state capital. 

The lack of official action has led to alternative plans from various environmental and advocacy groups. One proposed creating a pipeline from the Sea of Cortez, pumping in ocean water and returning the lake to its original size. Any plan however lacked funding and water rights.  The nonprofit Pacific Institute estimates that without human intervention, the 350-square-mile lake will shrink to 100 sq. mi. by 2030, the salinity will triple over 15 years, and the remaining fish will disappear in 5 years.

California’s Salton Sea is a hard lesson of man’s attempts to intervene once Mother Nature has set her course.  Today, with a southwestern mega-drought and climate change raging, the lake continues to dry up and shrink further, and is about twice as salty as the nearby Pacific Ocean. Care for a swim, anyone?

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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