Salton Sea: A Century Old and Dying Young


The Salton Sea is a hundred years old today. Young by oceanic standards, prematurely old in actuality, the Salton Sea was spawned in the summer of 1905, gestated for two years, and emerged fully grown and probably destined for an early death.

Atop my list of North American lakes to visit, the Salton Sea, located northeast of San Diego, California, began its life as an immense yet shallow freshwater lake a century ago and has since become saltier than the nearby Pacific Ocean. In another 50 years it might be dead altogether, deader than the Dead Sea.

I proceeded west from Phoenix in my antique VW van with sailboard atop. As part of my 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, I intended to inspect the Salton Sea in person and use my six senses to determine if the sea was dying or simply decaying from neglect and abuse. See it, smell it, step in it, swim in it, sail it and sip it if I had to; these were the tests I'd render. Unscientific methods, certainly, but first hand experience was better than none.

At Indio I took the exit for the Salton Sea and headed south. An empty highway inclined gently to an accidental sea. Someone told me the Salton Sea was the only man-made mistake visible from outer space. Probably true. And now that it was dying, many people were trying to save the Salton Sea, accident or not.

April is better than August to inspect the sea, the weather is reasonably cool and the roads empty of tourists. From a distance of a few miles, the Salton Sea is a beautiful gem-like blue, pale cobalt and shimmering in the sun. Up close, the color deepens to varying shades of beef-jerky brown and carcass green. Green is worse, I've been told. The water color was deep brown when I arrived and hardly resembled the youngest big lake in America.

Depending on recent rainfall, the sea is roughly 35 miles long and 10-15 miles wide but not much more than 50 feet deep. Flanked by low, serrated mountain ranges to the east and west, the sea somehow appears as if it has always been there, and indeed, it has.

"The Salton Sea in one form or another has been here for a long time," said Bill Radke, a biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Prehistoric Lake Cahuilla occupied this exact area from time to time, appearing and disappearing, leaving a bathtub ring on the base of the nearest mountains as a reminder.

In its most recent reincarnation, the Salton Sea had a little help from a fellow who accidentally flooded the ancient seabed and speeded up the process.

Late in the 19th Century, a developer named Charles Rockwood decided to divert part of the Colorado River and bring water to the dry desert of the Imperial Valley. He cut a small channel from the Colorado to an old streambed that flowed north.

For more than a decade, the idea worked well. Brawley, El Centro, Imperial, and Calexico sprang up like green shoots of corn after a spring rain. Then, in 1905, Rockwood decided to cut a more ambitious channel a bit further south, four miles inside the Mexico border. But in June of that year, unusually strong floodwaters overwhelmed the channel, broke free and rushed into the ancient seabed, 285 feet below sea level.

Repairs took two years to contain the flood. Took a presidential order by Teddy Roosevelt. Took Congress to hurriedly raise money. Took railroad tycoons to send precious locomotives to the effort, filled with carloads of rock and sand. Took 1,500 workers to finally stanch the flow. By then, 1907, a vast new inland sea occupied California. The only man-made mistake visible from space.

Within a few decades, the salinity level exceeded that of the Pacific Ocean. Fish were introduced by the 1950s, and for a couple of decades, the lake enjoyed immense popularity. Movie stars and recording idols flocked to the sea. From Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, from Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, everyone sported on the newest inland sea. Minutes away from chic Palm Springs, the Salton Sea became a speedboat playground for the ultra rich and hip.


The day I saw the sea, the only visible reminder of that era were decaying structures and defunct piers sagging into the tepid water. Coated with salty encrustations and rusting signs, the marinas and motels now resembled a movie set for a Stephen King film.

The abandoned resort and marina at North Shore, built in 1962, had that gee-whiz, pop-rocket, space race optimism prevalent of that era. Portholes and curved roofline echoed the go-go mentality of big-finned cars and bigger hair. Now the debris-filled swimming pool and cracked concrete foundations seemed somehow apropos of that lost age.

I launched my sailboard in the rubble-strewn water, careful not to strike an underwater rock. The water smelled ripe. A few dead tilapia floated in the lagoon. Half a mile offshore a lonely boat drifted with a pair of fishermen trolling for tilapia or corvina, saltwater fish more suited to the high salinity. I sailed out about two miles on gentle winds, trying to imagine movie stars flocking to the sea, frolicking or water-skiing. Try as I might, the imagery never appeared.

Returning to shore, I secured the sailboard and set off to explore. A good journalist is part busybody and part voyeur. I rarely miss a chance to snoop; otherwise how would one ever see?

Looking closely at the narrow band of "beach," I noticed the granules were not sand but bones and scales of thousands of dessicated fish. No wonder the resort died. After the water level rose in the Seventies, the resort and many lake front lots got flooded out. Then the great fish and bird die-offs began.

Part of the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea became a major stop along the North American migratory pattern. Seabirds discovered the Salton Sea long before any Hollywood stars declared it trendy. Fish and birds flourished about the same time the popularity of the lake flourished with humans.

Then rising levels of nitrogen from fertilizers contributed to algae blooms, which suffocated the fish. Avian botulism followed. Floating fish, floating seabirds: hardly anyone's idea of a popular resort.

Today the Salton Sea is a huge, environmental white elephant, a sump for fertilizer run-off, pesticides and mineral salts from the over-allocated Colorado River. Like a semi-toxic nature preserve that nature neither created nor contributes anything to but one whole-heartedly embraced by waterfowl. Still, with thousands of acres of California wetlands lost to development by man, the Salton Sea might be one of those rare mistakes that actually did some good for nature.

The Salton Sea is a century old and incomparably young. And dying. I love the place. The ruins and stink and empty beachfront lots. When the wind freshened in the afternoon, I windsurfed out to the middle of the sea and stared at the moonscape mountains. On the way back to shore, I fell into the soup and swallowed some water. Primordial stew, visibility only a few inches, I became frightened for a moment.

I imagined the sea was alive but a vast dead thing, struggling for life still, clutching in desperation all that once lived there, seabirds, fish and people. A haunted place, the Salton Sea, and few visitors make it more so.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @