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The Salton Sea is a saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Faultmarker. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sinkmarker in the Colorado Desert of Riversidemarker and Imperial Countiesmarker in Southern California. Like Death Valleymarker, it is located below sea level, with the current surface of the Salton Sea at below sea level. The deepest area of the sea is higher than the lowest point of Death Valley. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as a number of minor agricultural drainage systems and creeks.

The lake covers a surface area of approximately , 241,000+/- acres, the largest in California. While it varies in dimensions and area with changes in agricultural runoff and rain, it averages by , with a maximum depth of , giving a total volume of about , and annual inflows averaging . The lake's salinity, about 44 g/L, is greater than the waters of the Pacific Oceanmarker (35 g/L), but less than that of the Great Salt Lakemarker and is increasing by about 1 percent annually.


It is estimated that for 3 million years, at least through all the years of the Pleistocene glacial age, the Colorado Rivermarker worked to build its delta in the southern region of the Imperial Valleymarker. Eventually, the delta had reached the western shore of the Gulf of Californiamarker (the Sea of Cortez/Cortés) creating a massive dam which excluded the Salton Sea from the northern reaches of the Gulf. Meandering at random across the ever-growing fan-shaped mass, the river changed its course constantly. Occasionally shifting to the north, the river flowed into the isolated Salton basin, filling it with a large freshwater lake. Eventually, a significant river shift towards the south and into the Gulf of California abandoned the inland lake to likely evaporation and extinction.

As a result, the Salton Sink or Salton Basin has had a long history of alternately being occupied by a fresh water lake and being a dry, empty desert basin, all according to the random river flows, and the balance between inflow and evaporative loss. A lake would exist only when it was replenished by the river and rainfall, a cycle that repeated itself countless times over hundreds of thousands of years - most recently when the lake was recreated in in 1905.

There is significant evidence that the basin was occupied periodically by multiple lakes. Wave-cut shorelines at various elevations are still preserved on the hillsides of the east and west margins of the present lake, the Salton Sea, showing that the basin was occupied intermittently as recently as a few hundred years ago. The last of the Pleistocene lakes to occupy the basin was Lake Cahuilla, also periodically identified on older maps as Lake LeConte, and the Blake Sea, after Americanmarker professor and geologist William Phipps Blake.

Once part of a vast inland sea that covered a large area of Southern California, the endorheic Salton Sink was the site of a major salt mining operation. Throughout the Spanish period of California's history the area was referred to as the "Colorado Desert" after the Rio Colorado (Colorado Rivermarker). In the 1853/55 railroad survey, it was called "The Valley of the Ancient Lake". On several old maps from the Library of Congressmarker, it has been found labeled "Cahuilla Valley" (after the local Indian tribe) and "Cabazon Valley" (after a local Indian chief - Chief Cabazon). "Salt Creek" first appeared on a map in 1867 and "Salton Station" is on a railroad map from 1900, although this place had been there as a rail stop since the late 1870s. The name "Salton" appears to be connected with salt mining in the area, at least as early as 1815. A yearly expedition to the area mined salt for Los Angeles residents. With the extension of a rail line through the basin, large scale salt mining started in 1884. After that, the general area is referred to as the 'Salton Sink' or the 'Salton Basin', "sink" or "basin" referring to the area's bowl-shaped topography.

Creation of the current Salton Sea

The creation of the Salton Sea of today started in 1905, when heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell and breach an Imperial Valley dike. It took nearly two years to control the Colorado River’s flow into the formerly dry Salton Sink and stop the flooding. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding and Torres-Martinez Indian land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.

Subsequent evolution of the Sea

In the 1920s, the Salton Sea developed into a tourist attraction, because of its water recreation, and waterfowl attracted to the area. The Salton Sea remains a major resource for migrating and wading birds. It has also had some success as a fishery in the past, with species such as mullet, corvina, sargo, and tilapia being introduced to the Sea from the 1930s to the 1950s. Since then, increased salinity, pollution, and weather events have killed off most fish species other than the hardy tilapia. There are an estimated 10 million tilapia in the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has had some success as a resort area, with Salton Citymarker, Salton Sea Beachmarker, and Desert Shoresmarker on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shoremarker, and Bombay Beachmarker built on the eastern shore in the 1950s. The town of Nilandmarker is located 2 miles (3 km) southeast of the Sea as well. The evidence of geothermal activity is also visible. There are mud pots and mud volcanoes on the eastern side of the Salton Sea.

Environmental problems

The lack of an outflow means that the Salton Sea is a system of accelerated change. Variations in agricultural runoff cause fluctuations in water level (and flooding of surrounding communities in the 1950s and 1960s), and the relatively high salinity of the inflow feeding the Sea has resulted in ever increasing salinity. By the 1960s it was apparent that the salinity of the Salton Sea was rising, jeopardizing some of the species in it. The Salton Sea currently has a salinity exceeding 4.0% w/v (saltier than seawater) and many species of fish are no longer able to survive in the Salton. It is believed that once the salinity surpasses 4.4% w/v, only the tilapia will survive. Fertilizer runoff, combined with the increasing salinity and the highly polluted water from the northward-flowing New River have resulted in large algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels. The New River is considered to be the single most polluted river in America.

The high level of bacteria resulting from fish die-offs are a major threat to the avian population. In 1992 and 1996 large scale die-offs of grebes and pelicans due to Type C Avian Botulism occurred, demonstrating the unstable nature of the ecosystem.

High levels of selenium have also been found in the Sea and are thought to contribute to mortality and birth defects in the bird populations. In 1997 investigators researching the death of fish discovered a parasite dinoflagellate known as Amyloodinium ocellatum in 22 of 23 dead fish. Algal blooms also lead to massive die-offs of the fish population due to oxygen starvation. There are often thousands of dead fish, mostly tilapia, lining the shore.

Many governmental and grassroot efforts have arisen to find a solution for the pollution and salinity problems of the Sea. Without further human intervention, both the Salton Sea and the animal populations using it are threatened. Large desalination plants, evaporation ponds, outlet pipelines to the ocean, and causeways dividing the lake into portions have been investigated.

Much of the current interest in the sea was spearheaded in the 1990s by the late Congressman Sonny Bono.
  His widow, Mary, was elected to fill his seat and has continued the fight, as has Representative Jerry Lewis of Redlandsmarker.

This motel in North Shore has been abandoned.
The increasing salinity, algae, and bacteria levels have taken their toll on tourism, and many of the Salton Sea resorts are now closed and abandoned. Before recent water control measures were implemented, the Salton Sea's surface tended to rise and fall severely, causing flooding in some of the surrounding communities. The area still draws over 150,000 vacationers a year, primarily to the local campsites, trailer parks, and the Salton Sea State Recreation Areamarker.

The future of the Salton Sea is unclear, as intervention is required to manage the increasingly unstable system. Such intervention would require massive policy and financial commitments from the state and federal governments. The growth of San Diegomarker, and its willingness to pay high prices for water, entices water districts to sell their water rather than dedicate it to agricultural purposes. As the Salton Sea is nearly completely dependent on agricultural water runoff, the lake is highly dependent on the path of water politics in the coming years.

Bird use of the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea has been termed a "crown jewel of avian biodiversity" (Dr. Milt Friend, Salton Sea Science Office). Over 400 species have been documented at the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea supports 30% of the remaining population of the American White Pelican. [51869] The Salton Sea is also a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway. On 18 November 2006, a Ross's Gull, a high Arctic bird, was sighted and photographed there.[51870]

The combined effects of increasing, highly polluted inflows from the New River, Mexico and agricultural runoff have resulted in elevated bacterial levels and large algal blooms in the Salton Sea. With the lack of an outlet, salinity has increased by approximately 1% per year. Due to high selenium levels, the public was strictly advised to limit fish consumption from the Salton Sea in 1986, after which any amount was likely a health risk. Increasing water temperature, salinity and bacterial levels led to massive fish die-offs (1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2006, 2008), and created the ideal breeding grounds for avian botulism, cholera and Newcastle disease, which also led to massive avian epizootics from 1992-2008. Currently, the Salton Sea has a salinity of 44ppt (44 parts per 1000), making it saltier than ocean water (35ppt for Pacific), and many species of fish are no longer able to reproduce or survive in the Salton Sea. It is now believed the tilapia may be the only fish species able to persist there for a limited time. Without restoration actions, the sea will likely increase in toxicity and remain an ecological trap for avian species.

Saving the Salton Sea

Past efforts and proposals for a sea level canal

Alternatives for "saving the Salton Sea" have been evaluated since 1955. Early concepts included costly "pipe in/pipe out" options, which would import lower salinity seawater from the Gulf of Californiamarker or Pacific Oceanmarker and export higher salinity Salton Sea water; evaporation ponds that would serve as a salt sink, and large dam structures that would partition the sea into a marine lake portion and a brine salt sink portion. Others advocate building a sea-level canal to the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California. Given that the Sea is over 200 feet (60m) below sea level, a sea level canal would allow thousands of tons of lower-salinity sea water to flow into the Sea without costly pumping or pipelines. Such a canal could be built large enough for recreational use and ocean-going vessels. A sea-level canal would promote dual purposes, as both an inland port for Southern California and a recreational/environmental asset along its course for humans and wildlife in Mexicomarker and the U.S. A sea-level canal would also likely provide a way to regulate the shoreline of the Sea in a predictable manner. However, without a means to export salt, even this approach would eventually leave the sea with ever-increasing salinity levels.

In the late 1990s, the Salton Sea Authority, a local joint powers agency, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spearheaded efforts to evaluate and develop an alternative to save the Salton Sea. A Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement, which did not specify a preferred alternative, was released for public review in 2000.

Since that time, the Salton Sea Authority has developed a preferred concept that involves the construction of a large dam that would impound water to create a marine sea in the northern and southern parts of the sea and along the western edge. The plan has been subject to some criticism for failing to address ecosystem needs, and for engineering practicality concerns such as local faulting, potentially devastating to such a plan.

Criticisms of the preferred plan issued by the Salton Sea Authority include:

  • Construction failure when identified 200 feet (60m) of sediments fail to hold up the rock structures placed on top of them
  • Geological catastrophe when a major earthquake hits the nearby San Andreas Faultmarker (feet (meters) away from the east end of the dike)
  • Physical catastrophic failure as water is depleted from the south pond and water pressure pushes across the north pond against the soft sedimentary underlayment
  • Possible catastrophic failure by water blowing under the dike as water from the higher north pond etches its way under the dike
  • Massive alkali storms blowing across the area destroying crops from the south basin [51871] exposing dried salt sediments, resulting in crop damage and increased respiratory problems.

Many other concepts have been proposed [51872], including piping water from the Sea to a wetland in Mexico, Laguna Salada marker, as a means of salt export, and one by Aqua Genesis Ltd to bring in sea water from the Gulf of California, desalinate it at the Sea using available geothermal heat, and selling the water to pay for the plan. [3] This concept [51873] would involve the construction of over 20 miles (30 km) of pipes and tunneling, and, with the increasing demand for water at the coastline, would provide an additional 1,000,000 acre feet (1.2 km³) of water to Southern California coastal cities each year.

Current state restoration process

The California State Legislature, by legislation enacted in 2003 and 2004 (SB 277 [51874], SB 317 [51875], SB 654 [51876]and SB 1214 [51877]), directed the Secretary of the California Resources Agency to prepare a restoration plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem, and an accompanying Environmental Impact Report. As part of this effort, which is based on State legislation enacted in 2003 and 2004, the Secretary for Resources has established an Advisory Committee to provide recommendations to assist in the preparation of the Ecosystem Restoration Plan, including consultation throughout all stages of the alternative selection process. The California Department of Water Resources and California Department of Fish and Game are leading the effort to develop a preferred alternative for the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the protection of wildlife dependent on that ecosystem. The Secretary of Resources is required to submit a report to the legislature, including a preferred alternative, by 2006 December 31.

On January 24, 2008, the California Legislative Analysis Office released a report entitled "Saving the Salton Sea" [51878]. The preferred alternative outlined within this draft plan calls for spending a total of almost $9 billion over 25 years and proposes a smaller but more manageable Salton Sea. The amount of water available for use by humans and wildlife would be reduced by 60 percent from 365 square miles (945 square kilometers) to about 147 square miles (381 square kilometers). Fifty-two miles (84 km) of barrier and perimeter dikes - constructed most likely out of boulders, gravel and stone columns - would be erected along with earthen berms to corral the water into a horseshoe shape along northern shoreline of the sea from San Felipe Creek on the west shore to Bombay Beach on the east shore. The central portion of the sea would be allowed to almost completely evaporate and would serve as a brine sink, while the southern portion of the sea would be constructed into a saline habitat complex. If approved, construction on this project is slated to begin in 2011 and would be completed by 2035.

Media attention

The 2006 documentary film Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (narrated by John Waters) documents the lives of the inhabitants of Bombay Beach, Niland, and Salton City, as well as the ecological issues associated with the Sea.

The episode "Engineering Disasters 18" of The History Channel's show Modern Marvels showcased the creation and current rehabilitation efforts of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea was featured in a segment of the Travel Channel's show "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations". It explored the interesting culture that still remains with the small population that lives there.

The episode "Future Conditional" (#302) from the series Journey to Planet Earth (narrated by Matt Damon) talks about the plight of the sea, and if nothing is done, a repeat of the fate of the Aral Seamarker will occur.

On March 24, 2009, an LA Times article reported a series of earthquakes in the Salton Sea. The article also quoted prominent geophysicists and seismologists who discuss the potential for these small quakes to spawn a massive earthquake on the San Andreas fault.

William T. Vollmann writes extensively about the Salton Sea in his non-fiction book "Imperial," (Viking Press, 2009) a meditative journey on the continuum between Mexico and America.

From August 18, 2007 to December 09, 2007, The Nevada Museum of Art (NMA) in Reno held an exhibition in their installation/ altered landscape galleries entitled "Salt Dreams: Reflections from the Downstream West," which examined the complex environmental history of the Salton Sea. Comprised of photographs by Joan Myers, the exhibition provided viewers with a fresh perspective on water issues that have impacted the surrounding region since it was accidentally flooded in 1905. Beginning in 1986, Myers began a series of trips to photograph the area's drained gardens, mud volcanoes, and abandoned structures. The hauntingly beautiful black-and-white photographs are lightly colored with watercolor paint, and were acquired by the NMA for "The Altered Landscape: Carol Franc Buck Collection." [from the NMA website at]

Image:Salton_Sea_Tilapia.jpg|Dead TilapiaImage:Salton_Sea_Obsidian.jpg|Near Obsidian ButteImage:Salton_Sea_NewRiver.jpg|Where the New River enters the Salton SeaImage:Salton_Sea_Buildings.jpg|Abandoned BuildingsImage:Westshores_saltonsea1995.jpg|Sign on the west shoreImage:IMG 0627.JPG|More ruins on the east shoreImage:Sunset of salton sea.jpg|Sunset at the Salton SeaImage:White Pelican at Salton Sea.jpg|White Pelicans on the North CoastImage:Salton_sea_mud_volcanoes.jpg|Field of mud volcanoes.Image:Salton_Sea_Reflection.jpg|View from Mecca BeachImage:Salton_Sea_Alkali_Flats.jpg|Alkali flats on the South shoreImage:Salton_Sea_East_coast.jpg|View from the East Coast of the Salton Sea near NilandImage:SaltonSeaByPhilKonstantin.jpg|Salton Sea from 20,000 feet


  1. State of California
  2. Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
  3. [1]
  4. "Future Conditional" (#302) - Journey to Planet Earth


  • Metzler, Chris and Springer, Jeff - "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" Tilapia Film, [2006] - Thorough history of the first 100 years at the Salton Sea and the prospects for the future - State of California
  • Stevens, Joseph E. Hoover Dam. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. (Extensive details on the Salton Sea disaster.)
  • Linkin Park "Minutes to Midnight" album, May 15, 2007, 2007 Warner Bros Productions.

See also

Further reading

  • Setmire, James G. et al. (1993). Detailed study of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the Salton Sea area, California, 1988-90 [Water-Resources Investigations Report 93-4014]. Sacramento, Calif.: U.S.marker Department of the Interiormarker, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Setmire, James G., Wolfe, John C., and Stroud, Richard K. (1990). Reconnaissance investigation of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the Salton Sea area, California, 1986-87 [Water-Resources Investigations Report 89-4102]. Sacramento, Calif.: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

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