How big is the Salton Sea?
It is the largest inland lake in the state of California. The Sea is about 35 miles long and about 15 miles wide; it has a surface area of approximately 343 square miles and about 110 miles of shoreline. The Salton Sea is only 51 feet deep at its deepest point.
California’s most popular water resort
Accidental and unnatural
Miracle in the desert
Crown jewel of avian biodiversity
Ecological nightmare and disaster
Ghost town in the making
Family getaway of the 1950s and 60s
All of these phrases at one time or another have been used to describe the Salton Sea. Not only is it an incredibly interesting and sad place to visit but the fact the Salton Sea could be referred to all the above makes for an intriguing history lesson.
In the spring of 1905, following extreme rains, the Colorado River flooded and blew out a weakly constructed irrigation canal. All efforts to seal the breach failed—for 18 months, the river continued to flood into the Salton Sink, filling it up with fresh water like an enormous shallow tub. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which had extensive rail interests in the area, jumped in and for two weeks stopped rail traffic in California in order to divert all rolling stock to Salton Sink. Two thousand workers dumped more than 3,000 specially constructed railroad cars full of boulders, wood, and dirt into the flooded canal. The scheme worked: The Colorado River once again resumed its former course into the Sea of Cortez. The lake left behind by the flooding wasn’t deep, but it was enormous, covering nearly a thousand square miles of land. The Salton Sea, as the lake is now called, was more or less left alone for the next several decades; runoff from the Imperial Valley’s huge farm areas offset much of the heavy annual evaporation rate and kept the lake viable.
Enter the 1950s.
With the rising popularity of the nearby desert resort of Palm Springs, developers once again saw opportunity in the Salton Sea. Towns like Salton City and Bombay Beach cropped up along its shoreline. It became a vibrant fishing and tourist destination with lakeside resort towns along its banks. People built vacation homes; hotels and restaurants opened; businesses boomed; and the area thrived.
In 1959, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club opened as the largest marina in Southern California. Celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and Desi Arnaz flocked to the lake. The 'Salton Riviera' rivaled nearby Palm Springs and at its peak, the Salton Sea was drawing 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite. Business was booming; it was called the ‘miracle in the desert’.
Not only was Salton Sea a phenomenal tourist attraction, it also plays a critical role as a resting stop for birds along the Pacific Flyway. The Pacific Flyway is a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Every year, migratory birds travel some or all of this distance both in spring and in fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or traveling to overwintering sites. Over 400 species have been documented at the Salton Sea.
The most diverse and probably the most significant populations of bird life in the continental United States are hosted here and are rivaled only by Big Bend National Park in Texas. In fact, it supports 30% of the remaining population of the American white pelican. During one of our visits, I managed a few pictures of the birdlife long the beach, but I didn't have the right lens to capture high quality pictures from a distance. I'll be better prepared next time. Below is the American White Pelican.
Being the home to North America’s largest population of migratory waterfowl outside of the Everglades, the Sea provides vital nesting habitat for 2/3 of the bird species in the Continental US. Below is the Black-necked Stilt.
Enter the 70s
The popularity of this man-made California lake was short lived. As a terminal lake, the Salton Sea lacks any outflow, and in the late 1970s a series of heavy tropical storms caused the water level to rapidly rise and flood its banks. The surrounding towns and businesses were severely damaged, many beyond repair, and tourism began to shift away. Builders abandoned their partially completed developments, leaving behind only a few houses, sewers, a serpentine layout of empty roads and street signs with names like Sea View Drive and Desert Beach Drive.
As time went on, irrigation runoff from the adjacent agricultural Imperial Valley flowed into the Sea and without a natural outflow, the Sea was unable to flush out toxins. In addition, it had also become increasingly saline. By the mid’70s, the fish had begun to die; the birds had also become ill, and the tourists began to disappear. What had been called the ‘miracle in the desert’ is today described as an ‘ecological nightmare and disaster’ - a ghost town in the making.
Over the past few decades, millions of fish have died in the lake partly caused when the oxygen levels drop in the water during heatwaves. Severely decayed fish are scattered around the shoreline of the Salton Sea, baking even more in the sun until their bones deteriorate completely. The worst fish kill occurred during the summer of 1999, when more than 8 million tilapia died in a single day, leaving them to wash along the shore in a band that was about three miles wide and 10 miles long. Interestingly, tilapia are an amazing fish. They're a freshwater fish, but in 30 generations they've modified themselves to live in the 'salty' Salton Sea.
If oxygen deficiency wasn't enough of a problem, increasing salinity is contributing to this environmental crisis. According to the Salton Sea Authority, 4,000,000 tons of dissolved salts enter the Salton Sea every year. The salt comes from agricultural drainage and tail water and the Colorado River itself. Biologists warn, "We are at a tipping point. In the next several years, tilapia will be approaching their own salt limits and when that occurs it will result in a massive die off of tens of millions of these fish. If the fish die from hyper-salinity the birds will die as well. It’s going to get real crazy."
Hugh bird kills have already occurred. The great die-offs began in the 1990s when 150,000 eared grebes died in 1992. "The remaining population of grebes were so disoriented that they stood still while gulls tore into their flesh and began eating them on the spot," according to Robert H. Boyle who reported for the Smithsonian. In 1996 15,000 pelicans (20% of the Western population ) died at the Salton Sea.
Here is a glimpse of the result of the Colorado River irrigation in the area surrounding the Salton Sea. These practices that transformed the Imperial and Coachella valleys from a desert wasteland to a lush agricultural empire are largely responsible. Canals divert Colorado River water to crops. It's an ironic twist of nature, the rivers and runoff that poison the sea also sustain it. This picture was taken in the farmlands adjacent to the Mecca Hills.
What a paradox the Salton Sea presents.
From a distance the sea looks beautiful. The water shimmers a deep blue and you get the impression of soft white sand beaches.
As you get closer the site changes quickly. It's eerily weird; just lonely picnic tables. There are no beach umbrellas, no children playing, or people swimming.
The soft white sand is actually coarse piles of fish bones piled by over several decades.
The 'bone sand' is littered with sun-bleached fish carcasses.
The image of shimmering water is enhanced by foam created by the agricultural chemical runoff. It may look great in pictures but it's a bad omen for fish and wild life that depends on the sea.
As you get even closer, the 'blue' water takes on different colors. Increasing phosphate and nitrate run-off results in out-of-control algae growth. It's difficult to see in this picture, but just below the surface is a brown and blue-green tint from an algae bloom.
These environmental conditions are not just taking a toll on plant, fish and birds. There are well documented health impacts on residents near the Salton Sea. Because the Salton has been used as an 'agricultural sump' for a century, as it recedes it leaves behind a dangerous dried lake bed. So the most pressing issue for residents near the Salton Sea is the continued threat of wind blown toxic dust from the lake bed that contains harmful pesticides, heavy metals and powdery-fine particles that are linked to asthma, respiratory diseases and even cancer. Imperial County, which houses the Salton Sea, currently has the highest asthma-hospitalization rates in the state.
According to a local official, "CA issued a $9 billion plan in 2007, for example, that failed to gain any traction—possibly because Imperial County, one of the poorest counties in California, has relatively little political muscle. If the Salton Sea was next to Sacramento, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, the problems would have been fixed a long time ago." We can hope that the State and Federal government can step up and address this human health and environmental crisis before it is too late.
The Salton Sea won't return to the glory of the 50s but we need a solution now that address the most pressing needs. It would be nice to be among the crowds that come to appreciate the wonderful Salton Sea now and in the future.