Tara and I took the family to the Salton Sea yesterday. It is a surreal and interesting place.
The Salton Sea is a saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Riverside and Imperial County in Southern California. Like Death Valley, it is located below sea level, with the current surface of the Salton Sea at 226 ft (69 m) below sea level. The deepest area of the sea is 5 ft (1.5 m) higher than the lowest point of Death Valley. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as a number of minor agricultural drainage systems and creeks.
The lake covers a surface area of approximately 376 sq mi (970 km2), the largest in California. While it varies in dimensions and area with changes in agricultural runoff and rain, it averages 15 mi (24 km) by 35 mi (56 km), with a maximum depth of 52 ft (16 m), giving a total volume of about 7,500,000 acre·ft (9,250,000 dam³), and annual inflows averaging 1,360,000 acre·ft (1,680,000 dam³). The lake’s salinity is increasing by about 1 percent annually, at about 44,000 mg/L, is greater than the waters of the Pacific Ocean (35,000 mg/L), but less than that of the Great Salt Lake.
by slworking2The back story of the Salton Sea is fascinating. The current inland sea formed when canals were built to divert the Colorado River in an attempt to irrigate the Imperial Valley for agricultural. In 1905, one of the canals was breached and water flowed for nearly two years into the Salton Sink. The basin filled and the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding and the location of the Liverpool Salt Works were submerged. The basin being flooded was not a new phenomenon, the Colorado River has been flooding the Salton Basin for, at least, a few centuries.
The colorful story of the Salton Sea gets the more interesting in the 1950s and 1960s when real estate speculators developed the area into a “California Riviera” akin to Palm Springs. In fact, in the 1950s, the Salton Sea had more visitors than Yosemite National Park. Jet-setters and celebrities from Los Angeles and San Diego vacationed in Salton City and investors expected huge returns on their real estate investments.
The hey day was short lived however. The lake has no outlet and therefore the Salton Sea increased in salinity. In the 1950s the fresh water fish (Tilapia) that were stocked in the 1920s were all but gone and the lake was being restocked with salt water fish. Agricultural irrigation exacerbated the increasing salinity by farm irrigation dissolving salts from the soil, which then flowed downhill back into the lake. In addition, pesticides such as DDT and Agent Orange as well as chemical fertilizers seeped into the lake.
In 1986 authorities declared fish in the Salton Sea not fit for consumption. To make matters worse, in the 1970s the high saline levels caused algal blooms, which is when a sudden increase in phytoplankton algae creates a dense tide of neurotoxin producing algae. These blooms create a stench some describe as smelling of rotten eggs. In 1970s the resorts had all closed down and the tourists were gone. Ever since the Salton Sea has only been of interest for agricultural irrigation and as a wildlife preserve for birds. Birds are attracted to the lake largely because of the population boom that diminished the wetlands in the Los Angeles area. Also, migrating birds use the Salton Sea as a stop off in their migration route. However, due to the toxicity levels there have been a few mass bird die offs at the lake.
Sounds awesome, right? I thought so too. 🙂 Which is why Tara and I took the family to check it out. From downtown San Diego it is about a two hour and fifteen minute drive to Salton City. The drive is a gorgeous route through the mountains, past Julian and down into Anzo-Borrego. Stop in Julian for lunch and/or dinner or be sure to bring a picnic because you are likely not going to want to eat at one of the few establishments in Salton City. Before you reach the Salton City you pass desert spot that is popular for city folk to take, or rent, all terrain vehicles and tear up the desert.
I expected Salton City to be completely abandoned, but there is a large modern truck stop servicing the nearby border crossing to Mexico. Also, I was surprised by the many inhabited homes. Most of which were in poor condition. It was interesting to note there are many houses that were constructed in the last five to ten years that are being advertised as starting at $99,999 and look like they would sell for 5-6 times this were they not near a fetid stinking lake of death. One of the more eerie aspects of Salton City are the hundreds of outlines of residential lots created by power lines and crumbling roads, but no houses.
The beach we stopped at was where one of the old yacht clubs was located. It was bizarre to travel the 4 lane divided road leading up to the beach and parking lot. The divider had clearly been planted with palm trees and foliage that has long since died off. The parking lot was overgrown and barely distinguishable. The beach was littered with fish bones and decomposing fish corpses. However, it didn’t stink at all; although, it was a very windy day.
The Salton Sink was all I expected, and more. It was a gorgeous drive and we had a wonderful time. I intend to return and spend a few hours shooting photos.
- Courtesy of SDSU: A thorough history of the Salton Sink from pre-history to modern times
- More Salton Sea Resources
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