This past weekend I had some friends visiting from Chicago who put me in charge of planning our weekend travels. If you want to fly halfway across the country to see a massive ecological and engineering disaster, I’m your woman. A few Airbnb searches later and our exotic vacation on the beach of the Salton Sea was booked. Welcome to the neighborhood.


The Salton Sea is an endorheic lake and drainage basin in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys of Southern California. This vast inland lake, the largest in the state, is the lowest elevation of the Salton Sink and receives water from the New, Whitewater, and Alamo Rivers. The Sea is also a retention basin for surrounding drainage systems and agricultural runoff. A perfect setting for a weekend getaway.


The inland sea has a long history and has served as home to different inhabitants along the way. Deposits from the Colorado River created fertile farmland in the Imperial Valley and cycles of water flow and evaporation have historically happened every half century. Native American fish traps can still be found which were moved around in relationship to the changing character of the water.

From the 1850’s on the Sea has taken on a number of names including The Valley of the Ancient Lake, Cahuilla Valley, Salt Creek, and Salton Station to name a few. The Salton Sink was the site of a major salt mining operation until 1905 when an accident led to the seas current state. Today the sea is most famous for its infill from a California Development Company engineering mishap. Irrigation canals were dug from the Colorado River to increase water flow into the valley. The canal overflowed and over the course of two years the historic dry lake bed was filled.

In the 1950s and ’60s the area was transformed into a hip resort town with swimming, water-skiing, yacht clubs, and golf courses. The California Department of Fish and Game stocked the lake with fish from the Gulf of California and the sea soon became a popular fishing spot for humans and migratory birds alike. Over time increasing saline levels and pollution from agricultural runoff saturated the sea and the freshwater began to evaporate. Algae blooms, fed by agricultural run-off, resulted in a foul smelling shoreline. By the 1980’s the cities surrounding the sea were close to abandoned, and mass numbers of fish began to die due to lack of oxygen in the water. The good times were over.


Photo by Pretzelpaws; (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2014 salt levels increased more due to water mandates to transfer water to metropolitan areas, resulting in even less freshwater in the Salton Sea. Climate change is also contributing to a more rapid evaporation cycle. Today you can see dried fish carcasses lining the banks of the sea and road layouts for developments never completed. Abandoned buildings and an open desolate quality give this place a distinct character that we actually found quite beautiful.


Photos: Jessica Roberts

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Introduced Tilapia can tolerate the high salinity and pollution levels. Over 400 species of birds have been documented at the Salton Sea, including 30% of the remaining population of the American White Pelican.


Photos: Jessica Roberts

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The shrinking sea poses threats to bird migration patterns and the creation of dust clouds. These dust clouds are a danger to public safety because of their pesticides and PCBs content. The California Department of Water Resources and California Department of Fish and Game are proposing a plan to restore the Salton Sea ecosystem. The plan calls for spending around $9 billion over 25 years to transform the dying body of water into a sustainable, but smaller Salton Sea. The center of the sea would become a brine sink and the southern portion of the sea would be a constructed brackish water habitat. Funding of course is a problem, so the development of these plans is abstract.


Photo: Jessica Roberts

As we were leaving our host mentioned that we would have to come back for a visit to see his new project. He is buying an old shrimp farm near his property and has plans to turn it into a bird sanctuary. I can’t wait to plan my next trip back to this fascinating and otherworldly landscape.


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  1. Is the Salton Sea a Temporal or Failed Landscape? | AHBE LAB

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