The Salton Sea

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

It’s around finals week, so to liven up the mood let’s talk about arguably the most environmentally disgusting place in the United States: The Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea

Most people have never even heard of the Salton Sea before. Ask many of the high-minded folk out in California about it and you’ll probably receive a confused look. I love maps though, and if you’re looking at one of the Continental US, it’s unmistakable; there’s a giant body of water right there in SoCal. In fact, by both volume and surface area, the Salton Sea is the largest body of water in California.

There’s a good reason why you’ve never heard of the sea: it’s a giant, decaying cesspool that was formed completely by accident. Back in the early 1900s, engineers from the California Development Company were hired on to construct irrigation canals to be used for diverting water from the mighty Colorado into an ancient, dried up lakebed known as the Salton Sink. And for a time, the soil was sufficiently fertilized so that farmers began successfully planting crops. Soon enough though, things started to go wrong. Huge silt blockages began to form in the canals and particularly heavy rainfall and snowmelt in 1905 caused the Colorado to overrun the dikes that the engineers had built. The torrential flood that followed was of biblical proportions. For two years the entire volume of the Colorado was transferred via two newly formulated rivers, about 60 miles long each, into what is now the Salton Sea. It was, by all accounts, a complete disaster.

The toxic waters of the New River
The toxic waters of the New River

Leave it up to the post-WWII American marketing machine to turn an environmental disaster into a tourist haven, though. Touted as the “miracle in the desert,” the Salton Sea officially peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, regularly attracting half a million visitors annually. Yacht clubs started to pop up, people were drawn to the oasis to fish, boat, and waterski, and Hollywood movie stars began buying up highly valued real estate along the shores. It wasn’t unusual to see Sonny Bono and the Beach Boys flying by in a speedboat as you picnicked on the beach. None of it would last, though.

By the time the 70s rolled around, the water in the Salton Sea was becoming too hostile to sustain any kind of life, let alone swim in. That’s because it’s an endorheic lake, meaning it has no natural outflow—it just keeps on getting saltier and saltier. Oh, and remember those two rivers that formed from the accidental flooding of the Colorado? Yeah, they are still pouring into the Salton, and they pretty much sum up why the lake is so abhorrent today.

Foam buildup on the New River
Foam buildup on the New River

Take, for example, the New River. Consistently referred to as the most polluted river in the US, its unnatural flow mostly consists of agricultural runoff, municipal discharge, and industrial dumping. To be exact, its composition is 69.6% agricultural and chemical runoff from the US and Mexican farm industries, 29% sewage from Mexicali, and 1.4% chemical sludge from Mexican manufacturing plants. The toxic contaminants that fester within the river hold pathogens that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. It’s so disgusting that scientists have to wear HAZMAT suits when testing the water. A typical sight along the shores and channel of the mighty New include trash, tires, and dead animals. The stench is supposedly vomit inducing, especially during the summertime when temperatures consistently reach upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is this type of water that flows directly into the Salton Sea and has led to what we have today. The water is now murky brown and almost all fish have died off. During the 1990s it was common to find millions of dead fish washed up on the beaches. And things will only get worse in the future. Because the lakebed is covered with all kinds of rotting stuff, once it is exposed as the lake dries, it will likely release clouds of toxic dust across Southern California. Oh joy…

Feature photo courtesy of

One thought on “The Salton Sea

  1. Salton Sea was created by accident…
    What a load of manure !
    The Salton Sea (formerly Lake Cahuilla)should have refilled naturally in the floods of 1905. It’s only through the efforts of man that the flooding was halted.

    The Salton Sea has filled and dried many times before written history. Area Indian stories recall the lake long before it was seen by Europeans. The Sea was last full in the 1600’s. That’s a hundred years after the continent was “discovered” by Columbus. The Colorado River regularly added water to the Salton Sink as it overflowed it’s banks during heavy rains in El Nino years. Many European immigrants also witnessed the river flooding into the sink in the 1800’s
    So in 1905 when Engineers created canals which couldn’t handle the regular flooding of the Colorado River, history was rewritten to blame the engineers for what has happened naturally over and over again for thousands of years.

    The Salton Sea should have refilled in 1905!
    With the construction of Hoover Dam and others upstream it seems unlikely that an El Nino year will ever flood the Colorado River into the Salton Sink. Still it’s possible that rains in the expansive lower Colorado River watershed could still help to add fresh water to the Salton Sea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.