Journey to the Salton Sea
We were recently out doing a fun photo shoot in the Palm Springs area and looking for another location to go shoot at when our friend Emily suggested we head over to the Salton Sea. While I had heard of the location and had a vague knowledge that it was a body of water that had somehow been damaged by man, I really didn’t know much about the actual history of the area or what had finally happened to it. The story is both interesting, sad, and even horrific and it is actually rather difficult to find all of the information about it in one place. My goal is to create a series of articles and photo essays about the Salton Sea. This will not be a political statement or a “save the sea” message, it will simply tell the story and hopefully leave the reader with something that they didn’t know before. If you do not know the story of the Salton Sea, you are certain to at least find it interesting.
What is the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water and was formed by accident when a dike ruptured in 1905. For 18 months virtually the entire Colorado River flowed into what had been an ancient dry lake bed creating a 385 square mile fresh water lake. After the dike was finally repaired the lake, unknown to anyone at the time, was setup for failure. Without a large infusion of fresh water, made even more difficult by the water demands of the Los Angeles area, the lake began picking up the vast amounts of salt from the area eventually turning the fresh water lake into a salt water lake with four times the salinity of the Pacific Ocean. During the 1940s – 1960s the area of the Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley became a large and important agricultural area. In 1960, developers began putting in hotels and resorts in turned the area into the hottest vacation destination in California, attracting more tourists than Yellowstone National Park. With a huge recreational lake and what even what had became one of the top salt water fisheries in the world, the Salton Sea was an absolute resource goldmine. It wasn’t until the 70’s that concern started to grow over the future of the area. In 1972 a research study estimated the sea would be dead sometime between 1980 – 1990 unless something was done to save it. At this point, irrigation runoff from the nearby farmland was bringing in tons of pollutants and the only significant source of water was the massively polluted New River that flows up from Mexico. With 18% evaporation occurring every year and nothing but polluted water going into the sea to maintain the water level, it was only just a matter of time before the ecosystem was simply going to fail.
Beginning in the 1940’s, salt water fish were transplanted into the sea and eventually created a very successful fishery industry. In 1960, the resort area began to flourish with the opening of the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. In 1961, The California Department of Fish and Game predicts the Salton Sea will eventually die because of increasing salinity levels by 1980 or 1990. In 1968 Tracey Henderson, in her book “Imperial Valley” writes that the Salton Sea’s “salinity threat is constant and is growing more serious each year.” She notes that by 1972, it may be too late to save the sea.
The Salton Sea golden age began to crumple when the sea flooded in 1977 and destroyed quite a bit of the surrounding area. In 1984 the North Beach Yacht Club finally closed down.
In 1992 the nation’s eyes were finally turned toward the Salton Sea when 150,000 eared grebes die. Two years later 20,000 birds die of a result of another eared grebe die-off. Another two years later in 1996 Type C avian botulism causes the deaths of white and brown pelicans. An estimated 15-20% if the western population of white pelicans and more than 1,000 endangered brown pelicans die as a result, causing the largest die-off of an endangered species on record.
In August of 1999 and estimated 7.6 million tilapia and croakers die from oxygen being depleted due to algae in Salton Sea. Even so, scientific studies show the Salton Sea may have the most productive fishery in the world.
In August of 2006 more than 3 million tilapia died, blocking off Varner Harbor at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. It was the largest die off since 1999.
Debates continue at different levels of local, state, and federal governments about exactly what to do from letting it dry out to building a canal to the Gulf of California. There are some projects happening here and there but no commitment to any large scale restoration plan. Most people can’t even agree wether or not the sea should even be saved at all.
A call to the Salton Sea ranger’s office gives the clear impression that the Salton Sea simply suffers from bad PR right now. Fishing is up, in the warmer months boats and jet skis ply the waters. The stigma is due to the occasional algea bloom that sucks a lot of oxygen from the water causing a large die-off of fish. A few days later things begin to return to normal. There are fantastic campgrounds and bird habitats.