One of my goals on my 476-mile journey through Southern California a couple of weeks ago was to visit the beaches on the east and north shores of the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea is a shallow, salty lake located directly on the southern stretch of the San Andrea Fault. With a surface area of about 376 square miles, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. The level of the lake is about 226 feet below sea level, and its maximum depth is a mere 52 feet. Salinity is about 44 grams/liter, higher than the Pacific Ocean but still below that of the Great Salk Lake.
Geologically, the Salton Sea is an endorheic rift lake, meaning that the lake basin formed as a result of subsidence related to earthquakes, and that waters come in to the lake—from the New, Whitewater, and Alamo Rivers, as well as creeks, agricultural runoff, and drainage systems—but don’t flow out. In other words, it’s a pretty stagnant, nasty lake, and a good whiff of the air confirms that.
The sea was created by engineers of the California Development Company in 1905. They attempted to increase water flow into the area for farming by creating irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the valley. They cut into the bank of the Colorado River to further increase water flow and prevent silt buildup. The resulting outflow from the river overwhelmed the canals, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, creating the sea, before repairs were completed.
In the best days of the Salton Sea, the ’50s and ’60s, traffic on Highway 111 would back up as campers and boaters crowded the entrance to what was then California’s second busiest state park; it even had more visitors than Yosemite National Park. More than 400,000 boats crowded the Sea each year.
As the agriculture industry in the Imperial Valley grew, agricultural runoff caused the sea to become saltier and saltier. Fish began dying when algae fields depleted oxygen from the water. Birds then contracted botulism by feeding on the rotting fish. Tens of thousands of dead fish and birds washed up on the shore of the Salton Sea each year.
In 1992, over 150,000 Eared Grebes died, a wildlife disaster that overwhelmed the facilities of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Their disposal incinerator ran 24 hours a day for many months.
A smaller Brown Pelican die-off in the late nineties received massive media exposure, bringing the plight of the Salton Sea into living rooms throughout America.
In the summer of 1999, algae fields depleted the oxygen in the lake, causing 7.6 million Tilapia to die from oxygen starvation. Their rotting carcasses rimmed parts of the Sea for over ten years. The stench was a smell that had to be experienced to be believed.
I stopped at every campground and beach. Those 400,000 boats from years gone by? I saw one boat. Looked like this:
And all those people? I saw only one, and that’s when I looked in my car’s rearview mirror.
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