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As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

I remember my colleague Clarence Lacy offered an excellent post in July chronicling his visit to the Salton Sea. His post’s title, Is the Salton Sea a Temporal or Failed Landscape?, asks an important and specific question about this fascinating oddity of the California landscape.

The Salton Sea is a manmade anomaly born out of our thirst for water and a consequence of creating the state’s water infrastructure. The Salton Sea is both a living monument to Southern California’s historic water-grab in the early 20th Century, and also an example of how our natural environment adapts to humankind’s follies.

Clarence’s photos are memorably beautiful, haunting, and disturbing. His post represents what I consider to be the best of what the landscape architecture profession aims to accomplish, asking the questions that help us understand our relationship with the earth and our place in it.

The original post here: Is the Salton Sea a Temporal or Failed Landscape?

All photos by Clarence Lacy

When I moved to Southern California, I arrived with an understanding of some of the challenges related to landscape design in a semi-arid and arid climate. Prior to my relocation, I had experiences with turf renovation projects and low water landscape projects in the California Central Valley, another region facing similar water scarcity issues as Southern California. With these projects, I became fascinated with the desert and desert plants, specifically the harsh environments that host unique ecosystems of flora and fauna, life easily missed if one doesn’t recognize their subtleties underfoot.

My fascination with the desert has inspired me to make a list of arid destinations in Southern California, all with the purpose of documenting one of my favorite ecologies. On that list is the Salton Sea, a curious large body of water with an interesting past and present hydrology (a curiosity shared by others here at AHBE).

The Salton Sea is a 343 square mile saline lake located in the Coachella Valley. Inflows include the Alamo River, New River, and Whitewater. The wild part is? There are no outflows.

The lake is actually a historically dry bed that only filled after a catastrophic canal flooding and overtopping after a late storm. The storm caused unprecedented peak flows from the Colorado River into the lake bed, forming what we know as the Salton Sea in 1905. This landscape is another great example of nature’s adaptability after human intervention.

Over time the Salton Sea has become a stopover for migrating birds. Various small wildlife can be found taking advantage of the landscaped spaces and the created water body.

While a new ecology has existed since the lake’s unforeseen creation, the lake is continually shrinking with every passing year due to surface evaporation and decreased inlet flows related to drought and lower volumes of irrigation runoff. Salinity and boron concentrations continue to increase, decreasing the chances of a habitable environment for the various aquatic plants and animals that currently call the Salton Sea home.

The Salton Sea – once a popular freshwater lake used for recreation – has continuously become more and more polluted, its increasing salinity unideal for most recreation. Eutrophication and alageblooms from concentrated runoff have caused fish populations to decline among all introduced stock fish, with only the Mozambique Tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus, eking out an existence. Dead fish litter the shores of the lake, the results of fish kills, their life cycle, and the fact there are no outlets from the lake.

As the lake shrinks in size, the landscape will begin to take another form. The dry lake basin and its salt deposits will become an ever-changing dynamic landscape. The birds that have used the space along their migration paths will (have to) find a new place to stop. Fish will continue to scatter the shores, and the place will take on a new ecological form.

What was a heavy-handed anthropologic destruction of a natural ecology became something new. How will nature’s resilience continue to adapt to these changing conditions? Is this a temporal landscape, nature’s way of healing a wound. Or is the Salton Sea just another example of a failing ecology?

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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.

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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.

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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. (more…)