The Salton Sea: The worst lake you’ve never heard of

photo of the salton sea
Sage Alexander/Staff

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In 2020, the Salton Sea was described by Palm Springs Life Magazine as “the biggest environmental disaster in California history.” With the largest lake in California holding such a bleak title, it’s amazing how obscure its legacy is.

Over spring break, we decided to go on a road trip to visit an eccentric settlement in the middle of the lower Colorado desert, known as a Slab City. This settlement is most well known for being a site of post-apocalyptic garbage art and a home for colorful nomads. Due to its libertarian ethos, it is billed as the “last free place in America.” Slab City also happens to be situated in Niland, a small town just a few miles southeast of the Salton Sea. Before planning our trip, we had never previously heard of the Salton Sea, but as we researched what we were going to do on our trip, we discovered that the sea, peculiarly, was of vastly more interest than the city itself. Unsurprisingly, we actually spent most of our time exploring there instead. 

Trying to figure out the exact history of what happened to the Salton Sea is as difficult as seeing what’s beneath the surface of its murky, toxic and algae-infested waters. Throughout its strange history, there are contradictions, errors built upon errors, disagreements, bureaucratic bottlenecks and a continued argument about what exactly people should do next. There seems to be no solution to the massive problem of the Salton Sea, and for decades it has sat, semi-abandoned, accumulating more and more complications. 

Throughout its strange history, there are contradictions, errors built upon errors, disagreements, bureaucratic bottlenecks and a continued argument about what exactly people should do next.

For thousands of years before our current civilization, the basin in which the Salton Sea lies has intermittently been filled and emptied of water due to the natural changes in the flow of certain tributaries of the Colorado River. The basin was completely dry in the 1800s. However, in 1901, an irrigation canal was built to aid local farmers. During a historic event in 1905 that flooded the basin, the canal burst, artificially creating what is now California’s largest lake. The breach continued to feed gallons and gallons into the basin nonstop for 18 months before it was finally fixed, creating a massive lake that now encompasses an area of 343 miles and reaches a maximum depth of 43 feet. The lake would’ve dried out if the story ended with just that, but as the 1900s went on, the Imperial Valley and the surrounding areas, once a barren desert, became a hot spot for agricultural production. Due to the new irrigation canals, agricultural runoff began to feed the lake until the water level was sustained without the need for the breached canal at all. The runoff continued feeding the lake for decades afterward, and with the water came pesticides, salt, and nutrients that have fed toxic algae blooms, killed off the introduced fish population and brought heavy metals to the sediment bed. The Colorado River itself is salty, half from the effects of industrial society and half from natural processes, and with a local rainfall of only 3 inches per year, the Salton Sea doesn’t get a chance to dilute its pollutants with fresh water. Now that the agricultural runoff has largely been reduced due to attempts to minimize water waste, the Salton Sea is drying up. Consequently, the local area is subject to wicked dust storms that pick up toxic sediment from the dried lake bed and pollute the air for residents.

“Nearly 1 in 4 kids have doctor-diagnosed asthma, which is a really high rate,” says Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Southern California who has done research on the storms’ effects on children. “It suggests that there’s issues happening that are sort of predisposing some of these kids to respiratory health problems.”

The storms are of particular concern because many people in the area spend a lot of time outside. The Imperial Valley’s population is 83% Mexican/Mexican American with 22% of its residents living in poverty, and one of the primary industries in the valley is agriculture. With a significant portion of the residents being farmworkers who spend most of their days in the field and a local economy that can’t easily make public indoor services and spaces, there often isn’t the necessary infrastructure to protect everyone.

“There’s been one school that in their gymnasium has gotten an air filtration system, so that’s going to reduce the particulate. But a lot of elementary schools down there don’t have indoor gyms, you know, it’s 100, 120 degrees regularly, they play outside.” Johnston says. “And so you know, these indoor spaces where you can put some of these engineering controls like air filters on, … it’s not a long-term solution, but at least in the short term can help reduce people’s exposure.”

Before the sea was starved of water in recent decades, it was another world rife with tourism and recreation. The government attempted to introduce freshwater fish for recreational purposes in the 1920s, failing repeatedly because of the lake’s high salinity until they brought in salt-tolerant fish such as the corvina from the Gulf of California. A group of boating enthusiasts hosted races at the sea starting in the late 1920s, setting new world records as they took advantage of the low barometric pressure and the density of the sea due to its high salt content, which made it ideal for high-speed racing. In the 1960s, the Salton Sea rivaled Yosemite as a tourist destination, attracting the likes of Frank Sinatra and former president Dwight Eisenhower. The sea’s proximity to Palm Springs and San Diego, a variety of conditions that made it perfect for boating and the warm winter climate of the Southern California desert made it an attractive destination. The sea was host to resorts, 12 functioning marinas and multiple constructed key developments for vacation homes.

“There’s been one school that in their gymnasium has gotten an air filtration system, so that’s going to reduce the particulate. But a lot of elementary schools down there don’t have indoor gyms, you know, it’s 100, 120 degrees regularly, they play outside.” — Jill Johnston

However, the sea’s brief interlude of luxury and abundance during the second half of the 20th century was built on a dubious foundation. From the get-go, the Salton Sea was doomed. As it drained into the soil and experienced a reduction in water sources, it continued to heighten in salinity, both from absorbing the natural sediments of the ancient lakebed and from collecting industrial and agricultural runoff as it evaporated in the hot desert sun. Algal blooms began occurring that robbed the water of its oxygen, leading to further ecological instability. 

Today, the Salton Sea is 25% saltier than the ocean, meaning the only fish that can survive in it are the local desert pupfish and the high-salt tolerant tilapia, introduced by accident from a tropical fish farm. By the 1980s, the ecological instability of the sea had reached a point where fish and birds dramatically perished at once in massive die-off events, with tens of thousands of their bodies accumulating on shores each time it happened. The property value of the sea began to fall, and soon, the resorts and marinas were abandoned. 

For 30 years, Sandra Zelasko has made the journey to the Salton Sea for wildlife photography. In 1999, she observed the most dramatic of these die-off events, where it is estimated that 7.6 million tilapia died during a single day. She recounted her experience: “It was the worst smelling mess that you could ever imagine. Those die-offs don’t happen anymore because there’s just not that many fish out there.” 

Considering the thousands of birds that must have died, the overwhelming smell of death and the loss of so many creatures, it would be easy to assume that Zelasko would feel depressed coming back. After all, Zelasko has been surrounded by wildlife at the sea for decades. 

“It’s less interesting for me because there’s less birds to photograph,” she said. “But on the other hand, all of my programs now are conservation-based. It’s totally changed for me. So I’m not just about photographing birds. I’m photographing conservation stories.”

In the face of the California water wars, birds have found a little sanctuary in this strange and wonderful sea. In the Eastern Sierra, Payahuunadu (named the “place of flowing water” by the Indigenous Nummu) once hosted Owen’s Lake, a crucial stop for birds on the Pacific Flyway. In 1924, however, it was drained by the city of Los Angeles, the legality of which has been challenged in recent court decisions. In the Central Valley, the water that once filled Tulare Lake was redirected for use by farmers in the late 19th century. These stops on the birds’ migratory paths have been stolen, and their only refuge is now, ironically, the muddy, quickly-drying-up utopia of the Salton Sea. During some years, 95% of eared grebes, 90% of white pelicans and half of all Ruddy ducks in North America used the Salton Sea as a stop during migration.

“We used to get thousands and thousands of cormorants, white pelicans, brown pelicans. I haven’t seen a brown there for probably five years, at least,” Zelasko explained. 

Brown pelicans feed off small schools of fish, which no longer can survive in the sea, so the present-day sea is only useful for birds that eat bugs or prey on the two remaining fish species.

In many ways, the decay of the Salton Sea is the natural conclusion of the corruption of urban living. The problems of the Salton Sea have always revolved around water rights: starting with the irrigation canal that caused the sea to emerge in the first place, and ending in a modern ongoing battle about whether the sea should have more water diverted into it to boost the local ecology and repel toxic dust storms. Cities across California have been stealing, diverting and otherwise manipulating water away from its original locations for more than a century. But when they drain the lakes, they dump the problems on the residents who live near them. 

In many ways, the decay of the Salton Sea is the natural conclusion of the corruption of urban living.

Today, you might be surprised when you come across signs announcing “Property of Los Angeles Power and Water” more than 200 miles from LA in Payahuunadu. LA’s tendency of water appropriation resulted in the nation’s worst particulate air pollution problem: It is the largest source of particulate matter, or PM-10, in the United States, which means that residents in the area surrounding the now-empty lake are breathing in dust that exceeds federal safety standards. Sadly, however, the problem is not restricted to LA. The city of San Francisco dammed Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a valley in Yosemite, in the early 20th century, which is where the Bay Area gets its water from today, causing mass destruction of the local environment. The power of cities will often overpower the voices of rural residents, especially when those residents are living in the intersection of various modes of oppression, such as the poor and largely Latinx population in the Imperial Valley.

“If this was happening in Palm Springs, or you know, Coachella Valley, if this was closer to them, they would throw all the money at it they had,” Zelasko said. “But it’s not, it’s in Imperial Valley, which is migrant farmer workers.” 

The final blow to the sea came in 2003 when 40% of the remaining water allocation, previously used to keep the Salton Sea in existence, was sold to the nearby city of San Diego. In a familiar tale, the water needs of cities took priority over birds and powerless people, and the Salton Sea started drying up even quicker. The agreement provided 15 years of water allocations, which were allowed to expire in 2018. The water that was helping things limp along was cut off, and the sea’s water level rapidly fell. 

Efforts have been made to remedy this problem, but it has been a slow, tangled and mostly ineffectual process. In the agreement of 2003, the state promised to allocate funds to help the shrinking lake bed, but these funds, which have approximated $70 million so far, have been used on “salaries and studies” instead of actually being used to address the problem. More recently, the state pledged to create a restoration project that would help create wetlands and habitats for the local wildlife and cover up the exposed lakebed, which was set to be completed by 2023. But with unforeseen delays caused by COVID-19, the historical tendency to misallocate funds and an overwhelming amount of work to do regardless, the future of this project is now uncertain.

An initial reaction to the quagmire of the Salton Sea is that it’s unnatural, and therefore unimportant to preserve anyway. It may be intuitive to dismiss its continued complications as a testament to the folly of humankind and to claim that the more we mess with it, the worse it will get. But the reality of the sea is not so cut and dry. The basin has likely been filling and draining for thousands of years, far before the existence of agricultural companies. Natural flooding events shaped the course of the Colorado River, periodically depositing enough water in the basin to form a freshwater lake. Even though the current lake was human-made, birds rely on the lake for water and food and people rely on it to keep down the dust from the ancient lakebed that has been compounded with artificial pollutants. Therefore, it is now necessary to accept its found purpose of sustaining the local environment and to preserve it accordingly.

 This paradox is what makes the sea so fascinating, and the convoluted, ruinous and apocalyptic energy of the place has bled out into its local culture. What is, essentially, an ecological disaster and health crisis, is also a place where flowers have bloomed in the desert. For example, the Bombay Beach Biennale is an art gathering where creators go to explore themes of finding beauty in decay that the reality of the Salton Sea brings so explicitly forward, describing their work as coming from the edge of Western civilization. The artists’ work can be seen at the Beach in installations: a beached pirate ship, a lonely porch, a drive-in movie theater with abandoned cars, all seemingly made out of forgotten junk and garbage. The group has been working since the mid-2010s, buying foreclosed lots in Bombay Beach and turning once dilapidated houses into pieces of art. The revitalization of the town and bringing awareness to the environmental catastrophe of the sea are priorities of this collective.

And of course, right near Bombay Beach is the infamous Slab City. An unofficial settlement of trailers, tents, and hastily built structures, Slab City was built on top of abandoned concrete “slabs” that were originally the foundations for buildings of a World War II military base. At the rear of Slab City, there is still an area, peculiarly lacking any fencing or barrier, stating that there are “undetonated explosives” under the ground and that you are entering “at your own risk.” Slab City has been a haven for freaks, weirdos and misfits for decades, and it is home to a collection of similarly apocalyptic art, creative fixtures made from old cars, cans, TV sets, toilets and whatever else the locals can find in the ruins of civilization that surround them.

Both Slab City and Bombay Beach set the mood for the Salton Sea, creating a surreal atmosphere that seems to echo the absurdity and urban decay that has defined the myth of the sea so far, from industrial mistake to booming tourist haven to desolate, abandoned forsaken wasteland. Our current cultural moment is colored by the impending climate collapse. We are facing years of decay and garbage accumulation, and one of the natural responses to this state of crisis is to create art. The settlements around the Salton Sea are merely a concentration and exaggeration of this reality, a mirror of what may be to come elsewhere if we’re not careful.

We are facing years of decay and garbage accumulation, and one of the natural responses to this state of crisis is to create art.

One of the most striking parts of the sea is its distinctive smell. At first, it may be assumed that it comes from the toxic algae, the layers upon layers of accumulated carcasses of fish and birds or maybe the mud that actually seems to be a bunch of dead flies when you look closer. However, it’s very possible this smell has something to do with the geologic activity in the area, caused by the Salton Sea’s position at the end of the San Andreas Fault. The most interesting feature of this activity is mud volcanoes, which form where the underground pressure is high and underground water is mixed with particles that are expelled onto the surface to form a volcano. The same heat and pressure that bring mud to the surface of these volcanoes also affect underground water aquifers. This has proven to be useful in the development of geothermal energy — a renewable energy source that could help replace fossil fuels. As a result, the geothermal energy plants in the region are extracting the hot water and steam from these geologic processes to spin turbines. In fact, a new plant is set to be operational by 2023, adding some industry to the region that is otherwise pretty economically devastated. These new plants also plan on extracting another essential ingredient for stopping the climate crisis: lithium. The liquid extracted by the plants is already rich with the element, and developers hope to repurpose it for production of batteries for electric vehicles. These developments may create a more positive future for the Salton Sea that will be more environmentally friendly than its past. 

Along with its convoluted history of bungles and mistakes, the Salton Sea does appear to have a few glimmers of hope in its future. It has fostered a vibrant, though somewhat bizarre culture among its locals. Even more remarkably, it might just prove to be a valuable resource in our fight against climate change. If it is properly saved, it can become a much-needed sanctuary for migrating birds, and if a miracle strikes, it may even revitalize as a tourist destination. 

But all of this hinges on the fact that the sea is drying up quickly, and there’s currently not much being done to save it. The air filters in the school gymnasiums, the proposed dust mitigation efforts on the playa and many more of the proposed short-term fixes all are nothing more than temporary solutions for something that can only be healed with one thing: water.

Contact Landon Iannamico at [email protected] and contact Sage Alexander at [email protected]