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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.