Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What is the Salton Sea?

A sexy muscle woman poses, for reasons unexplained, in front of the visually appealing, polluted, putrid, and mostly abandoned Salton Sea.  The Salton Sea has been in the news lately, and not for happy reasons... 

I never heard of The Salton Sea before today.

Then I was doing a little light reading about a 66-year-old man who was recently mauled to death during a morning stroll by his neighbor's pit bulls.

This is the kind of news story that tends to catch my interest.  Pit bull maulings in particular will grab me, because I know several people who are ardent defenders of the right for regular folks to own and keep pit bulls.  I enjoy chatting with them about how friendly and cute properly trained pit bulls can be, especially around children. 

This is not really a post about pit bulls, though.  It is a post about the Salton Sea.

Later in the pit bull news story, I learned that the dead man (and his cute, friendly murderers) lived in a waterfront community near the Salton Sea, said community being one of the lowest income places in California.  

I don't know about you, but where I come from, waterfront communities are more often high-income than low-income.  How high?  Sky high.  This is especially true of communities located near a "Sea" of some type.

Then I read this article about how the "rotten-egg stench" coming from the Salton Sea had recently broken records.

So I decided to dig a little deeper.

A massive fish die-off on the shores of the Salton Sea.  This is normal.

The Salton Sea - Nobody's Fault

You can't really blame anyone for the Salton Sea.  Anyone alive, that is.  

In 1905, a private engineering firm called the California Development Company was trying to divert water from the Colorado River into a dry lake bed in the blazing desert about 100 miles east of San Diego. 

The stated reason for this was to irrigate the land and make it suitable for farming.  What happened instead was the water overflowed the company's irrigation canal and broke its banks.  So much for engineers.  

For two years, the entire Colorado River flowed into the area, suddenly forming a gigantic lake 15 miles wide by 35 miles long.  Quite by accident, the inland Salton Sea was born.

Decades passed, the area remained quiet, and few people knew much about this idyllic spot - the biggest lake in all of California.  

Then the 1950s came, and soon everybody had cars.  And people with cars need a place to go.    

Happy times on the Salton Sea.  Almost looks like a painting.

The 1950s.  Was there ever a happier time anywhere?

Perhaps the best, most wonderful time in human history was the 1950s in the United States.  No one was poor.  No one was black, except for a few maids and butlers and jazz piano players in the movies.  No one was Hispanic at all.  There were few minorities of any kind to sully the clean pure whiteness of American society.

Indeed, everyone was so white, so there was really no need for police brutality yet.  There were no jails.  All the cops did was give lost people directions and rescue small boys trapped in dried out wells.  Everyone had a car and a refrigerator and a dishwasher.  And a TV, of course.  Everyone had a glorious future without limits. 

The Salton Sea underwent a tourism boom in the 1950s.  Towns with names like Salton City, Desert Shores, Desert Beach, and Bombay Beach sprang up, and became popular resorts.  The Salton Sea itself became a destination for speedboat racing.  

Speedboats line up to race on the beautiful Salton Sea, circa 1950s.

The thing about the Salton Sea which no one seemed to notice was it had no outflow.  Most lakes are located along rivers or streams.  As a result, water flows in one side, and flows out again at the other side.  This constant flow keeps the water clean and fresh.  

But the Salton Sea was a mistake.  It doesn't work like a normal lake.

At the Salton Sea, new water comes in from a variety of sources.  One is agricultural run-off.  Another is town wastewater.  Another is rain, and road run-off from rain.  These are not good sources of freshwater.

All the pollution that enters the Salton Sea, stays in the Salton Sea.  The more time passes, the more polluted the lake becomes.  So that brief window of time when the Salton Sea was an all-American resort was exactly that - brief.  

By the mid-1960s, it was becoming clear that the lake was sick.  By the 1970s, people were leaving in droves.  The restaurants and motels went under.  The towns emptied out.  And the lake just got sicker and sicker.  

Not only does the pollution stay in the lake, irrigation of local farmland deposits up to 4 million tons of salt in the area each year.  So a lake that was once freshwater is now saltier than the Pacific Ocean.  Freshwater fish don't do well in salt water.  And not so well in agricultural run-off, either.  The fish live for a while, then they all die at once.

And that smells bad.  Really, really bad.

Salton Sea Recreation Area - Closed.
The Salton Sea Today

The Salton Sea has become a grim, post-apocalyptic deathscape of abandoned buildings, rotting fish, poisoned water, and a relative handful of people living (and being mauled to death by pit bulls) at the water's edge.

This state of affairs goes largely ignored, despite frequent warnings that an environmental disaster looms.  

Looms?  That suggests it hasn't happened yet.

Of course, California has bigger problems than a big dead lake that nobody cares about anymore.  So it's unlikely anyone is going to do anything soon to fix the situation.  In fact, it's unlikely anyone could do anything.

A wrecked motorboat on the shores of the Salton Sea.

Remains of a waterfront motel on the Salton Sea.
Remains of a Salton Sea waterfront bungalow.

Abandoned trailer near the Salton Sea, with spooky lighting.

About the only hopeful sign for the Salton Sea is the tendency for people to drive hours just to take edgy photographs of the area, especially photographs of young women in various stages of undress.

Why do they do this?

Why not?

What is that fetid body of water back there?  Oh, it's the Salton Sea.

Sunbaked parched shores of the Salton Sea.

Almost looks like a place where you would actually go swimming.

Almost looks like the 1950s.  Very hip, very retro, Tim.


  1. I'm not sure your reason for this article. Its factually very incorrect and misleading. I live on the sea along with over 400 species of birds that depend on this massive water way. 15 miles across and over 30 miles in length the largest body of water in California. Critical habitat for the western flyway. Maybe you saw some dead fish and figured you knew what was going on. Maybe you talked to a tourist that saw some dead fish and they new all there was to know. Or maybe your mind in on sexy women and not facts. You did get some things right but over all very misleading. Dec 6 76 degrees not to bad.

  2. Hi Gerald,

    My reason for this article is the same reason I have for all the other articles - no reason. It's a meaningless waste of everyone's time. Or, you know, maybe for entertainment purposes. Some people find my insipid maunderings clever and funny. God help those people.

    The way the article came about is exactly as described. I read about a guy who got mauled to death by pitbulls, and I became curious about the place. If you want to write or take pics of a different side of the Salton Sea, I'm happy to post anything you give me. Thanks.

  3. Right now there is some amazing projects going on. If you want to get involved with some productive things concerning the Salton Sea contact Kerry Morrison of The EcoMedia Compass. www.saveoursea.info Join forces with some young exciting people working on positive change.

  4. Thanks Gerald,I will check it out. Maybe we'll do a Salton Sea, Part 2 post in the near future.