Salton Sea - The Accidentally Created Lake

Jul 14, 2013 15 comments

The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline lake located 226 feet below sea level, occupying the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside counties in Southern California. With an average surface area of 1,360 square km, it is the largest lake in California. Yet, just a century ago, the lake didn’t even exist.

The Salton Sea was a vast geological depression, a dry bed, that was often referred to as the “Colorado Desert” throughout the Spanish period of California's history. A flood in 1905 poured the Colorado River into the sink, and by the time authorities managed to stop the flooding two years later, the largest lake in California had already formed.


In 1900, the California Development Company began construction of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed. After construction of these irrigation canals, the Salton Sink became fertile for a time, allowing farmers to plant crops. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, pouring water down the canal and into the Salton Sink. The flood waters breached two dikes and formed two new rivers that quickly inundated the valley. Over a period of approximately two years these two newly created rivers - New River and the Alamo River - sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Native American land were also submerged.

Intermittent flooding of the Imperial Valley by the Colorado river continued. Eventually it led to the construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s and the flooding finally stopped. Salton Sea is now fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as agricultural runoff, drainage systems, and creeks. The average annual inflow of 1.68 cubic km is enough to maintain a maximum depth of 52 feet and a total volume of about 9.3 cubic km.

In 1950, the California Department of Fish and Game released thousands of fish into the Salton Sea. A few species survived and Salton Sea quickly became a fisherman’s paradise. With new fish to eat, the Sea also became a new stopover point for migratory birds. Over 400 species have been documented at the Salton Sea. Around 30% of the remaining population of the American white pelican lives in its shores, and the lake is also a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway.


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By 1960, Salton Sea had developed into a resort with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore. Several multi-million dollar marinas and yacht clubs sprung up around the shoreline. Golf courses began to appear everywhere. Thousands showed up to watch the Salton Sea 500, a 500 mile powerboat endurance race.

Salton Sea’s economic boom however didn’t last long. Since the Salton Sea has no outlet, the salt and chemicals dumped by agricultural runoffs and industries began to rise while the water level remained the same, resulting in increased concentration of toxic chemicals. Over the years, fish began to die in large masses -  tens of thousands of dead fish and birds began regularly washing up on the shore of the Salton Sea. When in the summer of 1999, 7.6 million Tilapia died from oxygen starvation caused by the overabundant algae, the authorities knew the situation was grim. Their rotting carcasses rimmed parts of the Sea for over ten years. Combined with the decaying algae, the smell was overwhelming.

In the late 1990s, the Salton Sea Authority, a local joint powers agency, and the US Bureau of Reclamation began efforts to evaluate and develop an alternative to save the Salton Sea. Many concepts have been proposed. Some advocate piping water from the Sea to a wetland in Mexico to remove excess salt, others prefer bringing in more water from the Gulf of California to dilute the salt. Still others believe the only way to save the Sea is by cleaning it up and keeping it as a valued part of the Pacific Flyway, constructing evaporation ponds in its northern half as a way of desalinating the water.

Perhaps the Salton Sea is destined to dry up just like a giant puddle in the pavement does. Geologists have found evidences that prove that the Salton Sink was alternately a fresh water lake and a dry desert basin, in a cycle that repeated itself countless times over hundreds of thousands of years. The 1905 creation of the lake was just the latest natural cycle. However, this time humans intervened and the ecosystem changed, perhaps forever.


Postcards of Salton Sea resorts during its heydays. Photos credit





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  1. Lovely topic.

    In addition, a great short film about the Salton Sea can be found on Youtube. It's called The Accidental Sea.

  2. Mention The Asthma A Dried-Up Sea Would Produce.

  3. I live in Palm Springs, just 30 min from the march the winds change and we get all the rotten egg smell from the sea.,..last year it reached L A...and people were panicking, thinking it was a massive gas leak. made The LA Times front page.. but like they give a shit......... Fact is tho, its unnatural..and If it dries up, and becomes another Owns Lake...the health , and local economy will be ruined

    1. Can you explain what you mean a bit more? I think it would be for the best if it dried up and was filled in with garbage, gravel, sand, and dirt. Then people could build on top of it, maybe turn it into a grassy plain with solar panels or with wind turbines... And it could start to give back to the community rather than pollute it further.... Maybe.

      In general though, I wouldn't want to live near a toxic lake like that.

    2. First Anonymous, It's not "unnatural". Don't skim articles then post, read thoroughly! "Geologists have found evidences that prove that the Salton Sink was alternately a fresh water lake and a dry desert basin, in a cycle that repeated itself countless times over hundreds of thousands of years. The 1905 creation of the lake was just the latest natural cycle. However, this time humans intervened and the ecosystem changed, perhaps forever." So Sophia B., do you understand the flaw in your lack of logic, mans already messed with this and screwed up a millennia of cycles by trying to improve on what nature does fine on her own, any development would be a catastrophic failure both ecologically and economically through increased insurance premiums alone which California already does enough of. Let the smell remind all the residents for miles and miles to quit messing with Mother Nature. This area has given billions of dollars in tourism, development, and resources like tilapia back to the community and the community gave it nothing but chemical pollution and over use. The 500 mile boat race alone cost an estimated 50 years of sustainability because of the chemical pollution and destruction of fragile habitats that 1000 horsepower boats and wrecks cause in a lake with no way to regenerate or adapt because of no outflow to filter pollutants and toxins from dead habitats. It is little known that it was recommended it have outflow channels and hydropower stations built to truly shape this lake into a synergistic resource center to fill power, tourism, food, and other needs, but corruption around the building of a cesspool in what was and is Las Vegas moved those plans to instead create the Hoover Dam which was and is poor ecological engineering, racketeering, and lobbyist lead governmental corruption at its finest. Seriously turn it into a landfill and build on it so it can give back?!?! I can't believe you even posted something like that, I though it might be a joke post until the last line. Are you sure you aren't a government official or politician? Also to the writer of the story, good summary piece. But "the accidental lake?!" IT'S A BASIN BELOW SEA LEVEL WITHIN RANGE OF A MAJOR RUNOFF RIVER IN THE COLORADO AND ITS TRIBUTARIES! IT WAS GEOLOGICALLY FORMED FOR THIS EXACT PURPOSE!

  4. I still drive by the Salton Sea on my way to Niland and El Centro. Hard to imagine this place was ever a resort.

    1. It's really a sad thing.....for the communities, the people that live/lived there, the investors.....but mostly for the fish, birds and ecosystem that was once a lovely lake. I had heard that Sonny Bono was trying to find a way to restore the lake to its health but since his death I'm afraid no one else took over the cause. I hope someone does! A few years back I saw a documentary on tv about the Salton Sea that was so interesting to me and so depressing too.

  5. "Their rotting carcasses rimmed parts of the Sea for over ten years. Combined with the decaying algae, the smell was overwhelming."

    These are said in a past-tense. That's not the case. I've been here a couple of times, and it smells terrible to this day, with fish carcasses (and some birds) littering the shores.

    There are many abandoned buildings around here, but there is still a community here.

    There's a portion on the southeastern side that has the absolute cheapest homes I've ever seen in California. Run down, in need of repair, and smelling awful.

    Still amusing to think there are actually some cheap homes in California.

  6. I lived at Bombay Beach. From 1960 on we went there almost every week from El Monte, CA to spend the weekend fishing, swimming and enjoying the Hot mineral springs up in the mountains. It was a thriving, successful, economic boom all around the Sea. Everyone had CB radios because there was no phones. Our showers were tanks on tall stilts that the sun heated for our hot showers at night. Dick or Red Bringle drove around filling everyone's water tanks .We finally moved there in Bombay Beach about 1969. I went to high school in Calipatria in 1969 - 1971. It took us over an hour to get to school by bus. We kids even named ourselves "The Bombay Gang!" and everyone knew us as the party group to hang out with! Wish I knew what happened to all of us since we lost touch. (Debbie & Dale Ackerman, Delores Jones, Miles Sidener, Madeline Milnickle, Bill McClaren, etc). It was a paradise and I loved it there. There were no barnacle covered beaches, just sand. We could walk all over the beach all day and not find a dead fish or trash on the beaches. The Corvina fish were huge, well over 15 pounds each usually. We threw back the small ones! Sargo was a smaller fish but good eating. We heard rumors of what could happen if the poisons flowed in and the rains came or a drought, but we ignored them. Some of my best teen years were at Salton Sea. Eventually we moved back to Oklahoma. I told everyone how awesome the Sea was. By the Spring 2007, I have a wife and 2 teen kids that wanted to go to Disneyland, so we drove to LA. Imagine the horror and shock to my heart when I came around Highway 111 and saw the brown water, the smell, there was no boats on the water, no campers, no people, abandoned buildings, it was ALL gone. Nothing like what I had told them and my memories were shattered. It was so sad to see what happened to a once-thriving, beautiful place. Such a great economy given up on. Why not spend the money to fix it with water being circulated in? The money spent would revitalize the entire area and recreation would return. Land values would go back up. People would return and make it work again. So sad that Salton Sea is allowed to become a sewer and politics is in the way of bringing it back. Once again, humans destroy what was once good! Kids will never know the enjoyment this place taught our generation.

  7. The article mentions one possible solution to fill the sea using water from the Gulf of California. There's a concept of this illustrated using canals on Google Earth. I think you might have to register to Google Earth Community to view it.

    The concept represents the Salton Sea filled to sea level (+0') via canals from the Sea of Cortez. Tidal flushing would fill the Sea and provide circulation of sea water into and out of the sea while diluting the water to a level that could support a vast array of sea life.

    A canal runs sixty miles Northward from the Sea of Cortez to feed the existing dry lake Laguna Salada (this stretch is all near sea level). From Laguna Salada a canal runs East for five miles to the Salton Sea near Mexicali (this stretch requires additional excavation through approximately 40' elevation).
    The canal avoids the Colorado River delta by passing West through the desert.

    Obviously, Mexico-USA cooperation is required (the entire canal system is in Mexico) and several US cities would need to be relocated to the nearest shore.
    Indio becomes a beach front community.
    Some cities could be rebuilt new on the new shores including roads, sewer, power, and related infrastructure as well as community parks along the shore line.
    Crop lands could be relocated to the deserts to the East using new methods for irrigation using sea water.
    Water desalination would be more cost effective with the diluted salinity.

    The Canal would fill the Sea eliminating the current stagnation and provide vast resources for new wildlife (seals,? dolphin?) and commercial fishing (fish, lobster, scallops, possibly even return of salmon in the lower Colorado River).
    the Canal would allow for the introduction of commercial freight and cruise terminals in both US and Mexico (including Laguna Salada). Cruise ships could provide additional tourism opportunities for towns along the Sea of Cortez.
    The Canal could also provide electricity for neighboring communities utilizing the tidal bore in the canals
    The Sea could potentially cool weather patterns to Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.


  8. I love the Salton Sea. It's so surreal. If you are every out that way be sure to check out Slab City and Salvation Mountain too!

  9. i lived in Cathedral City for years.I took a day and drove there about 3 yrs ago. I was at the sea for about 20 mins. I walked around in complete awe at the site i was seeing. then ran back to my car and drove around for a few more minutes in the area before i raced home and quickly stripped my clothes off and tried to get the smell out of my skin. It is a very disturbing and gut wrenching smell. Very few people live there now, and it is not a place you go to enjoy the day at the bone beaches. 3 or 4 feet deep of fish bones line the shores. the death sea is really more like it. its a true sign that man has screwed up again if it was able to follow its cycle it would have been dry a long time ago and not the mess we turned it into.plans to fill the sea up to correct the issue is just another plan by man to make money from make fertile land from what was not meant to be. all in the name of money.

  10. What needs to be done, although it is costly, is a long dam, across the lake from just below Salton City to just below Bombay Beach, and another long berm-dam along the West side of the sea, diverting the New River, Alamo River, and all agricultural runoff into a man-made river channel flowing up towards Salton City and north of the dam. There would be an overflow spillway at Bombay Beach.

    North of the dam and spillway: A salt lake, getting fresher over time, restocked with fish, with a clockwise flushing action.

    South of the dam and spillway: A salt sump and salt ponds, and geothermal power development at any potential geothermal sites which would over time no longer be submerged. Ugly to be sure, but industrially useful.

    Half a lake and half a sump is better than a complete sump, which is where improved drip irrigation and geography are taking us now.

  11. I just saw a show last night (Viceland) on the Salton Sea and I did even know this existed. IT is so sad to see all the fish, birds, and a community dying. Another disturbing thing is people who live there now say many people get cancer. Beautiful terrain on TV.


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