I have been fascinated by the Salton Sea since I was a kid. I grew up 30 miles north of the Sea, and can still remember the pungent odor that wafted northward from the Sea on a hot summer’s day. Every few years, when I am visiting my parents in the Coachella Valley, I make the drive south to visit this aquatic wasteland.
The Salton Sea isn’t actually a sea, but rather a lake that is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. At 376 square miles, it is the largest lake in California. It averages 15 miles wide, 35 miles in length, and is 52 feet at it deepest point.
Although salt lakes have existed, and then evaporated, in this desert region for many years, the present Salton Sea was the result of an engineering project gone wrong in 1905, when workers attempted to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate land in the Imperial Valley. The Colorado overflowed, breached the structures, changed course, and began to fill the empty salt basin, creating the Salton Sea. Although the Salton Sea would have eventually evaporated on its own, it soon became a depository for agricultural runoff, which replenished the Sea with wastewater.
In the 1950s, tourism and development promoters billed the Salton Sea as a “miracle in the desert”, where one could relax by the water, water-ski, and fish to your heart’s content. Yacht clubs, hotels, and restaurants were built, turning the area into a “Palm Springs with water.”
This desert riviera, however, was short-lived. As salinity and pollution levels began to rise, the tourism industry collapsed. Today, with the exception of a few hardy residents, most of the developments surrounding the Salton Sea have been abandoned. If one visits Salton City, you can drive through entire subdivisions, all perfectly gridded and marked with street signs, that are devoid of any structures. Walking along the sea, you notice that the beaches are not composed of sand, but rather barnacle shells and the skeletal remains of fish, with more decomposing fish deposited on the shore by gentle waves.