The first impression the Salton Sea makes is size, the second is the smell.
A further 30 minutes west of Palm Springs off the 111 or 86 is the gigantic Salton Sea of Imperial and Riverside Counties.
The Salton Sea was created when in 1905 the Colorado river burst its banks and dumped its guts into the Imperial Valley. This went on for a solid two years before the hole was plugged. And now the lake is the largest in the State. It covers an area 32 miles long by 15 miles deep; however, the deepest it manages to get is only 43 feet. The elevation of the surface is only 5 ft higher than the lowest point in the State, Death Valley, at 234 feet below sea level.
Oddly enough, the sea has apparently come and gone on a 400 to 500 year cycle ever since the gap between the gulf of California and the “Saltin Sink,” the lake’s basin, was sealed up more than a few million years ago.
The Golden Years
First, people living in the area where rather unhappy about losing everything they had.
The Colorado, in-fact, burst its banks only because of miss-engineered efforts to get more water to the crops in the area. It was simply a matter of gross over-delivery!
People had begun settling in the area because the temporary lake/ Sea/ Ocean over Eons of coming and going had created something of a fertile crescent. The soil was nutrient rich, and even better, the warm weather meant crops could grow year around. Even today, 90% of all winter leafy vegetables in the US are still grown in the related imperial valley.
But what was done was done. And the Sea just kinda sat until the 1950’s.
In the 1940s California’s Hollywood Star rose and the population swelled, now it has the highest in the nation. With so many people about, the places once forgotten became very popular as “tourist traps” or destinations.
Places that where lazy villages like Big Bear, dessert waste like Palm Springs, or the largest inland body of water in the Southwest started to be worth noticing.
The Salton sea boomed. There where boat races, people introduced Salt water game fish as the salinity was much more moderate, and in good ol-California fashion, there was a huge real estate boom. Everybody in California freakin’ loves overpriced real estate! This is the era locals reminisce about, when Movie Stars vacationed there.
The twilight of the Salton Sea
The only Hollywood things going on at the lake nowadays… are photo-shoots attracted to the desolation and strangeness of the place.
It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood starlet, let alone a big bearded guy like your’s truly, wanting to swim in a lake where it is estimated 7.6 Million fish or more dye of and rot a year… (the left overs are in the first picture lining the beach, and in the one above).
Which is why I firmly recommend visiting the Sea in the Winter. The smell goes way down, and the weather is 50 degrees Fahrenheit not 113.
Flooding Never Overcome…
The Salton Sea’s first mortal wound came in the 1970’s when north wandering hurricanes dumped massive amounts of water into it. The Highest the Sea had ever been was the entire valley, so it readily swelled and swallowed up part of the beach-side communities. A large defensive wall, now way removed from the shore, testifies to the effects of the storms on the Eastern Shore Community of “Bombay Bay”
Still, things seemed like there could be some hope despite all the pollution and all the mess.
Senator Sony Bono was a fan of the lake. In his memory Congress even passed a bunch of stuff. The lake was still getting some water into it, so the water level held.
Most positively, the site was becoming a big site for bird watchers. And maybe, with effort and time… some kinda cleanup was optional.
Things that got swamped used to be a real attraction for photographs; in 2016 time has done it’s part. You are going to have to hunt a lot more than even a few years ago to really get anything iconic.
Even the heavy metal machinery is pretty much large blocks of salt, and in a few years seven the Salt will go away.
The Sunset of the Salton Sea
In 2017, the federal ruling that forced the water owning municipalities in California to allot some water towards the Sea will run out. The water level will begin to lose out even worse to the dessert heat, the salinity now already above sea level will kill all the fish for a final mass die off.
In return, Palm Springs golf courses will stay green and San Diego’s lawns will sport beautiful hydrangeas. But, in a sense of irony not lost on this working class stiff, they may not enjoy them as much!
Many predict the foul smell of the lake will reach Riverside, CA for sure, as it has already hit Los Angeles over 100 miles away before!
And, less funny, but no less serious are reports that the lake-bed if allowed to dry will far surpass Lake Owen the existing largest contributor to dust pollution in the state. (They let Lake Owen dry up in the 1900’s, and now they pay 31 million a year + to keep the dust down).
This one is for the birds
As stated in a snarky comment above, California loves ocean front property and all things real estate. In the period of the lake’s existence, from 1905 to today, pretty much every single wetland area in the state has been destroyed (90%). Gone, nada, finito.
For many birds, the Salton Sea became the replacement.
According to government records 70% of Burrowing Owls live there as do 40% of Yuma Clappers, and there are even arctic birds that pass through.
It’s one of the reasons why the population around the lake stays so high… even when there are outbreaks of disease that kill thousands of birds. There is simply no other home.
Can the Sea be Resurrected?
I am of the opinion that the current version of the Salton Sea is about dead. But, it is from forgotten places that new opportunities and life arises.
If “nothing good comes from Nazareth” on the Shores of Galilee meant something… I think there is something brewing. It is not blind fate that when Californians destroyed 90% of the Sea Birds homes, that a chance accident gave them a new one. And I do not think providence will abandon the feathered creatures yet.
There where never flood controls put in, we know how to filter out the agricultural run-off now… it’s not 1905… yet there are so many buts!
No one cares, it’s filthy, it’s doomed…
And that’s what’s dangerous about the Salton Sea
The lesson of the Salton Sea, that must never be forgotten, is that it quickly punishes dreamers and idle talk. It lulls people into thinking the issue is not manageable, or into thinking they can take things lightly.
And that is the draw of the place.
Why visit the Salton Sea?
The Salton sea is a disgusting place; it is an impressive place. The dead life and dead dreams hang in the air.
But in that same air cruise living birds, and in the vast openness and isolation there is a felling that disappointment cannot overcome. There is in all of us an odd hope for the lost caused.
The Salton Sea is an underdog we can root for.
I summed up my feelings in this picture:
It’s an old couch, old couches are gross… but you love them. There is something about them that really makes you resist throwing them away. And something that makes the new couch never as good… Until the day it becomes the Old Couch itself.
Things to Do at the Salton Sea
I won’t try and put a list together on this one, as this is sorta the “Chernobyl” kinda tourism. There is no gas around the lake perimeter so gas up. People mostly go to take quirky pictures, and anything online would defeat the purpose!
There is 1 liquor store or two.
You can fish for Tilapia, and hunting is legal in Season.
One thing you can do in almost all areas though is find a place to off-road unless marked
On the North-East:
State Visitors Center – Swimming, Kayak rentals, Camping, Learning
Bombay Bay (where all these photos where shot, people live there be polite)
Niland (It’s the Largest town, had a dinner once)
Geo-thermal mud pots. (Google it)
Salton City (Cheapest place to buy land in CA!)
Want to learn more? Check out the documentary on the Salton Sea here.
Want more travel write-ups? I’m always expanding my collections.
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