Salton Sea: Wikis


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Salton Sea
Location Colorado Desert
Imperial / Riverside counties, California, USA
Coordinates 33°20′00″N 115°50′03″W / 33.3334°N 115.8342°W / 33.3334; -115.8342Coordinates: 33°20′00″N 115°50′03″W / 33.3334°N 115.8342°W / 33.3334; -115.8342
Lake type Endorheic rift lake
Primary inflows Alamo River
New River
Whitewater River
Basin countries United States
Surface area 974 km2 (376 sq mi)
Max. depth 16 m (52 ft)
Water volume 9.25 km3 (7,500,000 acre·ft)
Surface elevation -69 m (226 ft) (below sea level)
Settlements Bombay Beach, Desert Beach, Desert Shores, Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, North Shore
References U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Salton Sea
Map of the Salton Sea drainage area

The Salton Sea is a saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault in the Southern Border. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside Counties in Southern California. Like Death Valley, it is located below sea level, with the current surface of the Salton Sea at 226 ft (69 m) below sea level. The deepest area of the sea is 5 ft (1.5 m) 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 376 sq mi (970 km2), 241,000+/- acres, the largest in California. While it varies in dimensions and area with changes in agricultural runoff and rain, it averages 15 mi (24 km) by 35 mi (56 km), with a maximum depth of 52 ft (16 m), giving a total volume of about 7,500,000 acre·ft (9.25 km3), and annual inflows averaging 1,360,000 acre·ft (1.68 km3). The lake's salinity, about 44 g/L, is greater than the waters of the Pacific Ocean (35 g/L), but less than that of the Great Salt Lake and is increasing by about 1 percent annually.[1]



It is estimated that for 3 million years, at least through all the years of the Pleistocene glacial age, the Colorado River worked to build its delta in the southern region of the Imperial Valley. Eventually, the delta had reached the western shore of the Gulf of California (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.[citation needed]

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 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.[2]

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 American 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 River). In the 1853/55 railroad survey, it was called "The Valley of the Ancient Lake". On several old maps from the Library of Congress, 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.[citation needed]


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, overrunning a set of headgates for the Alamo Canal. The resulting flood poured down the canal and breached an Imperial Valley dike, eroding two watercourses, the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east, each about 60 miles (97 km) long[3]. These two newly created rivers carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, filling it in approximately two years.[citation needed]

The Southern Pacific Railroad attempted to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the headgates area, but the effort was not fast enough, and as the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley, a massive waterfall was created that started to cut rapidly upstream along the main stem of the Colorado River. This waterfall was initially 15 feet (4.6 m) high but grew to a height of 30 feet (9.1 m) before the flow through the breach was finally stopped. It was originally feared that the waterfall would recede upstream into the Nevada-Arizona area, attaining a height of up to 100 to 300 feet (30 to 91 m), from where it would be even more difficult to fix the problem. 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.[4][5]

Subsequent evolution of the Sea

A gaseous mud volcano

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.[citation needed]

The Salton Sea has had some success as a resort area, with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore in the 1950s. The town of Niland 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.[citation needed]

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 have resulted in large algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels.[6]

Raw sewage and industrial waste flows into the U.S. from Mexico[citation needed] as the New River passes from Mexicali, Baja California to the Imperial Valley, and on to the Salton Sea

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.[citation needed]

Much of the current interest in the sea was spearheaded in the 1990s by the late Congressman Sonny Bono. [7] His widow, Mary, was elected to fill his seat and has continued the fight, as has Representative Jerry Lewis of Redlands.[7] In 1998, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project was named for the politician.[7]

This motel in North Shore has been abandoned.

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.[8] 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.[9]

The combined effects of increasing, highly polluted inflows from the New River, Mexico[citation needed] 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 44 parts per 1000 (ppt), making it saltier than ocean water (35 ppt 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

Map of New River basin

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 California or Pacific Ocean 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 Mexico 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 [10] 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 Fault (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 [1] exposing dried salt sediments, resulting in crop damage and increased respiratory problems.

Many other concepts have been proposed [2], including piping water from the Sea to a wetland in Mexico, Laguna Salada (Baja California), 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 [3] 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

Abandoned, salt encrusted structures on the Salton Sea shore at Bombay Beach

The California State Legislature, by legislation enacted in 2003 and 2004, directed the Secretary of the California Resources Agency to prepare a restoration plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem, and an accompanying Environmental Impact Report.[11][12][13][14] 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.

On January 24, 2008, the California Legislative Analysis Office released a report entitled "Saving the Salton Sea."[15] 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.[16]

The episode "Engineering Disasters 18" of The History Channel's show Modern Marvels showcased the creation and current rehabilitation efforts of the Salton Sea.[17] The History Channel also showcased the Salton Sea on their show Life After People in the episode "Holiday Hell" which first aired February 8, 2010. It was used as an example of what desert cities such as Palm Springs would look like after being devoid of human life after 20 years.

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 Sea will occur.[18]

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.[19]

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. Vollmann also discussed the Salton Sea on the History Channel series Life After People.


  1. ^ Khaled M. Bali (27 March 2009). "Salton Sea Salinity and Saline Water". UC Davis, Cooperative Extension Imperial County. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  2. ^ Eugene Singer. "Ancient Lake Cahuilla - Geology of the Imperial Valley". Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  3. ^ Detailed maps, and a film of the breach (and subsequent re-damming) are in Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a 2006 documentary
  4. ^ Kennan, George (1917). The Salton Sea: An Account of Harriman's Fight With The Colorado River. New York: The MacMillan Company. 
  5. ^ Larkin, Edgar L. (March 1907). "A Thousand Men Against A River: The Engineering Victory Over The Colorado River And The Salton Sea". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XIII: 8606–8610. 
  6. ^ NASA page: "Algal bloom in the Salton Sea, California".
  7. ^ a b c CNN article: "Salton Sea rescue to be named for Sonny Bono".
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ State of California
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Future Conditional" (#302) - Journey to Planet Earth
  19. ^ Chong, Jia-Rui (2009-03-24). "At the Salton Sea, a warning sign of the Big One?". LA Times. Retrieved 2009-08-30. 


  • 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, 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. Department of the Interior, 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.
  • Sperry, Robert L. "When the Imperial Valley Fought for its Life" in Journal of San Diego History Volume 21 Number 1 Winter 1975. James E Moss, Editor.

External links

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Salton Sea from the eastern shore

The Salton Sea [1] is the largest lake in California, covering 376 square miles. It is about 227 feet below sea level. Its salinity level is 44 parts per thousand versus 35 parts per thousand for the Pacific Ocean. The sea's salinity level has been rising, putting the ecosystem at serious long-term risk.

It is a popular destination for boating and fishing. It is in the south-eastern corner of California, about 100 miles east of San Diego, 70 miles southeast of Palm Springs, 30 miles north of Mexicali.


Until 1905 the area was known as the Salton Basin. In that year, an irrigation canal from the Colorado river broke, sending water flooding into the basin. This flooding lasted a year and a half, and when it was done, the Salton Basin had become the Salton Sea. In reality, the basin has been flooded countless times throughout its long history, and periodically dries out because it is in a desert that gets 3 inches of rain each year.

In the past the Salton Sea was a resort area, but rising water levels and the increasing salinity of the water resulted in decreased tourism and the collapse of the resort industry. The majority of the business in the Salton Sea area is now agricultural.

  • Mud volcanoes - near Niland
  • Train watching - a major Union Pacific railroad line runs along the eastern shoreline of the Salton Sea allowing for viewing almost anywhere along the route.
  • Sunken trailer park - Bombay Beach

Stay safe

It is safe to swim and fish in the sea! Don't believe the myths!

DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS ON THE EASTERN SHORE OF THE SALTON SEA. There is a state prison in Caliptria. Escaped inmates may attempt to hithchhike out of the area.

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Simple English

and Alamo River.]]

The Salton Sea is a large inland endorheic lake in the United States state of California. It is approximately 35 miles (56 km) long from north to south, and 15 miles (24 km) wide from east to west. It is well below sea level, with its surface elevation at -226 feet (Template:Rnd/b-1 m), and its deepest part is 52 feet (16 m) deep. The New River and Alamo River flow in from the south, while the Whitewater River flows in from the north. It was created in 1905, when heavy rain flooded the Colorado River and caused it to flow into the basin that now holds the Salton Sea.



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