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Sordid History of the Salton Sea

Article #122 • Written by Jason Bellows

An accident spawned a lake. The lake fed water to millions of acres of farmland, and was a booming tourist trap that whithered and died to leave a ghost town in its wake, all in the course of less than a century.

In the Sonoran Desert of southern California there is a valley that, like Death Valley, lies far below sea level. Geology suggests that this valley has been flooded and dried multiple times through the eons, but so far as US history goes, the Salton Sea came into being in 1905. It was an accident stemming from a canal that diverted water from the Colorado River to the agricultural area of the Imperial Valley. There was an overflow, an unplanned change of course, and an inland sea was reborn.

The tributary to the Salton Sea continued fill the fledgling lake, eroding the banks of other nearby lakes, and soon sucking them away, quickly filling the new lake with the liquidy remains. By 1906 it was a fully fledged lake, and surveyors noted that several species of waterfowl and pelicans were nesting in the area. The lake continued to grow until Union Pacific closed the river breach, and cut off the tributary.

So people had inadvertently created an inland sea. The Imperial Valley was still a nearby farming area with big needs, and a new irrigation/drainage lake was on their wish list. The US government put their stamp of approval on the accident by setting the land aside for use by the agricultural industry.

Fish were introduced to the lake, and by 1920 it was a major tourist destination. Sport fishing and speed boats were popular uses of the new lake, but its primary purpose was in full swing about the same time. Pumps sent water out to the Imperial Valley for irrigation.

As with any lake without an outlet, the Salton Sea became salty. The irrigation played a large role, with fresh water pumped up out of the lake, run over the fields where it dissolved salts out of the soil, and then the excess water just flowed downhill, back to the lake to be used again. And salts weren’t the worst of it: pesticides such as DDT and Agent Orange, and residues from fertilizers were mixed in too.

In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a greater tourist draw than Yosemite National Park. In the same era the water was too saline to support the freshwater fish that had been there, and saltwater fish were introduced instead. More canals were opened to more farmland—which only exacerbated the problem. Come 1960 the Salton Sea even had a yacht club, but at the same time California’s Fish and Game Commission announced that they feared the Salton Sea would be dead within fifteen years.

It wasn’t until 1986 that California announced that everyone should restrict the consumption of fish caught in the Salton Sea for fear of their toxicity levels. By then however, the rest was history. The saline levels had spawned an algal bloom—a sudden increase in phytoplankton algae—that had a profound smell … some described it as rotten eggs, or (and this is my favorite) “puke on a hot sidewalk”. By the seventies the resorts and tourists were history, and it was relegated to use only as irrigating and a wildlife preserve—the latter largely because of the population boom that devoured all the wetlands in the Los Angeles area, and left migrating birds no better place to nest. It turned out to be a less than ideal wildlife preserve; in the nineties there were two separate events of mass bird deaths at the lake.

Presently there are a number of ambitious plans to try to save the Salton Sea. Birds still flock there, unaware of the dangerous chemicals of the water. Most people avoid it. It’s become so polluted that it’s a danger to eat anything that comes from it, and it’s a wildlife preserve.

And it’s only a hundred years old.

Article written by Jason Bellows, published on 22 February 2006. Jason is a contributing editor for

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.

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Posted 22 February 2006 at 10:59 pm

Figures humans would screw up a new ecosystem so fast.

Posted 23 February 2006 at 01:58 am

Anything that is created by man is flawed, for we are flawed creatures.

Posted 23 February 2006 at 03:54 am

cspariah said: "Anything that is created by man is flawed, for we are flawed creatures."

Yeah, sucks that Adam ate that apple.

Posted 23 February 2006 at 04:42 am

Hey! I've been there!

Posted 23 February 2006 at 11:16 am

i yhink i will vacation there, sounds lovely

Shad Larsen
Posted 23 February 2006 at 11:33 am

I had a friend that lived in the area... he said that some of the locals would throw their dogs in the sea as a type of flea bath. Apparently it worked pretty well.

Posted 23 February 2006 at 12:16 pm

Ok, flea bath I don't agree with...dogs and cats are more sensitive to chemical toxicity than humans are. Anyway, I think it's sad that if we figured out how to bring water TO an area (even accidentally), that we can't figure out how to circulate the water, whether it be within itself or having a tributary/outlet system. We live on a private lake and the 10 or so property owners had to set up a system like that. Granted, if we were to send the water out of the lake into another water source, we'd have to clean it up first so we didn't screw up other bodies of water. So I guess I've come back full circle to humans sure knowing how to make a mess of things.

Posted 23 February 2006 at 04:05 pm

Kind of reminds me of the Caspian Sea, though not as much, as the Caspian was (is?) a natural thing that was completely messed up by mankind.
But back to this lake. Why didn't they just convert the thing into a dam? Obviously it wouldv'e had a purpose since it was used to irrigate the surrounding farmland.
But no. Let's pump the thing dry and see how much $#!t it'll cause, sounds like a much better plan to me!
If we don't start looking after nature, sooner or later nature's going to boot us out of it's backyard...

Posted 23 February 2006 at 05:46 pm

a dam? wouldnt that have to be built off a cliff or somewhere the water can run...?

"Anything created by man is flawed, for we are flawed creatures."
God supposed created man, so god is flawed. Therefore, god does not exist =o wee

Posted 24 February 2006 at 05:59 am

Good call Armani. As Woody Allen said "If god does exist hes not evil hes just an underachiever"

Posted 24 February 2006 at 09:05 am

Why is it a wildlife preserve if its dangerous to human and animalkind?

Posted 24 February 2006 at 04:10 pm

"a dam? wouldnt that have to be built off a cliff or somewhere the water can run…?"

Don't think so Armani... The water would've probably gone to the (*clears throat*) ...
-> surrounding farmland

But no. They didn't.

Posted 24 February 2006 at 06:07 pm

Armani said: "a dam? wouldnt that have to be built off a cliff or somewhere the water can run…?

"Anything created by man is flawed, for we are flawed creatures."

God supposed created man, so god is flawed. Therefore, god does not exist =o wee"

Wasn't man perfect until Adam supposedly ate the wrong piece of fruit?

Posted 25 February 2006 at 05:22 pm

But if Adam was able to be tricked into eating the fruit, then logically he couldn't be perfect, could he?

Heh, my first post on this website is off-topic... that's not a good start. :-)

Posted 26 February 2006 at 07:09 am

MaddMan said: "Yeah, sucks that Adam ate that apple."

Ahem. Just an FYI. It was a piece of fruit. What type is unknown. Don't worry about the Off Topic thing.

Posted 26 February 2006 at 07:13 am

MaddMan said: "Wasn't man perfect until Adam supposedly ate the wrong piece of fruit?"

Yes. He was perfect until he disobeyed God. You see, the thing about Gods human creation is he gave us free will. Humans could make their own choices. Adam chose to disobey. He was not tricked.

Sorry, the off topic thing was for Crispy. : )

Posted 26 February 2006 at 08:52 pm

One thing not mentioned in the article is that across the border in Mexico there is a huge industrial area that dumps all of it's waste in a creek that flows straight into the Salton Sea, You can see it a with Google earth, it comes out of Mexicali Mexico.

Posted 28 February 2006 at 11:34 am

Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe. One day, after numerous days of sitting around doing absolutely nothing at all, he decided he was bored and just a little bit lonely. So he decided to make a buddy that could please him and worship him and tell him how great he was. After he made his buddy, he realized that his new buddy might need someone to hang out with. So Joe made his buddy a buddy. Joe's two buddies didn't know much. They didn't grow up and make mistakes and learn from them. They just came into existance with a full-grown adult body containing the mind of a newborn. The groundwork for their code of conduct came from Joe himself, and consisted of only a few easy rules - you are here for the purpose of pleasing Joe, and also don't eat any of that fruit from the center tree which looks a lot like all the other fruit. They had no working knowledge of the concepts of right or wrong. Joe enjoyed spending time with his buddies, and most of the time he did so. Sometimes he got bored with this game and opted to just observe his buddies from a nearby hiding spot. One day he noticed his old best friend Luke walking through the garden where his two buddies happened to be sunbathing. (Luke used to be Joe's closest and most trusted friend, but a while ago there was a falling out, and they were no longer friends. Of minor significance in the dispute was that Luke stopped being nice and actually became a real jerk. He started lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, etc, etc.....and did so quite frequently and effectively.) So when Joe sees Luke strolling towards his new best two buddies what does he do? Does he hang around for another game of hide and seek with his two best buds? Nope! He decides to go play the "hide behind the tall grass and watch my buddies game". So Luke comes up to the two young toddler-minded, ever-trusting-because-they-have-no-reason-to-think otherwise teenagers. He quickly earns their friendship and begins to have a wonderful time with them. After a while they are all hungry, and being that Luke is the most clever person in history, he manages to talk the two most naive kids in history into having a bite of the biggest, juiciest, most fragrant apple in the orchard.

Joe observes all of this, and decides he's had enough. He jumps out from behind the grass, and in a beligerent attack, he verbally abuses all three unsuspecting targets. He curses all three for eternity, but piles the majority of the blame on the shoulders of not the slick salesman, but the two mindless kids.

:) I am 100% sure that it was Adam's choice, and 110% sure that God deserves to be praised for eternity!

Posted 01 March 2006 at 10:47 am

Adam and the ruddy apple have nothing to do with the salton sea.
JoseOleMexico... You have too much free time.

Posted 17 October 2006 at 06:29 pm

Depending on your interest, I made a documentary film, "Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea" (narrated by John Waters), which documented the lives of the inhabitants of Bombay Beach, Niland, and Salton City, as well as the ecological issues associated with the Sea.

Posted 10 December 2006 at 04:18 am

alipardiwala said: "Why is it a wildlife preserve if its dangerous to human and animalkind?"

Because human's don't want to deal with of course. Let nature have all the ruined places, we humans want the lovely, virgin arable land so we can screw that up too.

Posted 16 August 2008 at 09:41 am

glocke380 said: "One thing not mentioned in the article is that across the border in Mexico there is a huge industrial area that dumps all of it's waste in a creek that flows straight into the Salton Sea, You can see it a with Google earth, it comes out of Mexicali Mexico."

It was not mentioned because it does not matter - that is what the officials of the Salton Sea say temselves...look here:

Short quote from that page:
"Myth 1: Pollution from Mexico enters the Salton Sea

That the New River polluting the Salton Sea is something that you have probably heard. Actually, the water carried by the New River doesn’t appear to be a major factor for the Sea’s difficulties. Yes, the New River is polluted. Yes, biological and industrial waste flows into it in Mexico. Yet only 30 percent of the water in the New River comes from Mexicali, and most of that is agricultural discharge. By the time the water crosses the border and travels the 67 miles to the Salton Sea its quality is similar to that of the Alamo River. Waste from Mexico is treated naturally in the river and is diluted by agricultural drain water from Imperial Valley."

So blaming Mexico for the Salton Sea desaster does not work, sorry... ;-)

Posted 16 December 2008 at 01:42 pm

JoseOleMexico said: ":) I am 100% sure that it was Adam's choice, and 110% sure that God deserves to be praised for eternity!"

Um silly stories that don't even come close to the true events don't really illustrate anything.

Its really sad that we can create an destroy something so quickly. Just to put it in perspective, it was created just before my grandmother was born, and was too toxic to use a decade before i was born. What a waste.

Bill Wilson
Posted 27 May 2014 at 07:10 pm

The creation of the Salton Sea helped spur the damming of the Colorado River. The river was in flood stage and found a faster outlet thru the canal. They couldn't do anything to staunch the flow so just watched as the water scoured out a channel to the depression.

Posted 24 July 2014 at 07:19 pm

I was just over there looking into some road work and when I stopped and got out of the car there was a nasty smell and a bunch of flies got into the car when we opened it. Horrible!

Posted 29 August 2014 at 08:43 am

Joe could not give a damn about a few birds,
Nobody ever watched the film Matrix? Well its like that. Ole joe indoctrinated his underachievers idealism into everybody and made sure it all fit or else you would be destroyed and recreated to suit.
Ole joe wants only himself to be satisfied when the world ends. That was after he forced a late start on this planet... what a fantastic looser

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