The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Tragedy

Salton Sea

Photo: DisputedWaters

Way down south, lapping across the border of Riverside and Imperial counties, lies the Salton Sea.  It wasn’t always there, even in relatively modern times.  In fact it wasn’t until 1905 that this below-sea-level depression in the desert got accidentally filled because an irrigation diversion canal from the nearby Colorado River failed to control its flow.  The diverted water flowed down into this low basin for two years until engineers could restore the Colorado to its former course.  By this time the water level was up to 195 feet below sea level, the lake’s bottom being at negative 278 feet.  Waterfowl began to use the lake, and fish that had washed in with the river began to breed and increase, creating a draw for sport  fishermen.  The local farmers pumped the fresh water up to their fields, and the excess percolated back to the lake, but on its way back it carried dissolved salts.  The basin itself is an old seabed so there are naturally occurring salts under the water, and the evaporation rate in this land of little rain is quite high.


All this added up to increasing salinity in the Salton Sea, up to three times that of the ocean.  The freshwater fish couldn’t handle the salt, so saltwater species were introduced, but only the hardiest of those still survive.  The sea is by law decreed to be a receptacle for agricultural wastewater, so the salinity keeps growing and chemicals of many sorts are concentrating there.


The resort and fishing enterprises that once flourished there are gone, and there is a less-than-delightful odor coming off the unsavory water.   Because it has National Wildlife Refuge status, harmful elements such as selenium that collect in the runoff must be controlled.  It is an enormous and never ending battle, however, and unless something is done to comprehensively address the water quality, it will become an entirely dead lake, and in the long run evaporation will win out.

Photo: Google Maps


Salvation Mountain – Photo:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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