Salton Sea: From Heavenly to Hazardous

The story behind how California's largest lake became an ecological nightmare.
Salton Sea 16 by Julian Lennon

A Man-Made Mistake

In 1905, due to a blocked canal, irrigation developers in California’s Imperial Valley determined a new source of water was necessary to add to the area’s supply and meet the farming demands of the region.

The California Development Company assigned their engineers the task of diverting water from the Colorado River into the landscape. Unfortunately, the engineers were unable to seal the intake, which caused a breach of the irrigation canal and resulted in extreme flooding. The company blamed the engineers for their construction methods and inadequate materials; the engineers claimed they didn’t have sufficient funds to purchase reliable materials. Regardless of which group was at fault, the flooding continued for two years, with water going straight into the Salton Sink—a basin near Coachella, just 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Researchers note that historically the basin has sustained other bodies of water over time, but this incarnation of what is now California’s largest lake, began with this incident.

Salton Sea #9 by Julian Lennon

A Dynamic New Destination

Though the accident was negligent, the positive outcome of this new endorheic lake was the arrival of many species. Observers viewed pelicans, wood storks, western sandpipers and other birds breeding and thriving in along the shores, and sport fishing was promoted shortly thereafter.

A few decades later, a sophisticated ecosystem had developed, which included over 400 species of birds, many migratory that were dependent upon this body of water as a stopover on their annual journeys.

Fishing was also rich with rainbow trout, carp and desert pupfishes that arrived from the Colorado River, as well as species that were planted by officials such as orangemouth corvina and Mozambique talapia.

By the 1950s, what was now named the ‘Salton Sea’ became a thriving tourist destination, where parents taught children how to swim in the pristine waters, celebrities sailed on their yachts, and developers built accommodations and restaurants to attract more travelers to the area. In the 1960s, The Salton Sea was so popular it welcomed more visitors than Yosemite National Park.

Salton Sea #17 by Julian Lennon

Storms, Salinity and Spoliation

The 1970s brought two devastating storms to the Salton Sea, Kathleen and Doreen, respectively. The rainfall, coupled with agricultural runoff, flooded multiple resorts in the area and effectively reduced part of the shoreline. Conservationists also noted the salinity of the sea began increasing.

By the mid-1980s, such high levels of selenium were found in fish from the Salton Sea that the state issued advisories against consuming large quantities, which had a domino effect of people not buying or eating what was caught, essentially bringing the successful fishing industry to an end. In 1998, a task force was formed by local government agencies to address the growing concerns about the lake’s health and sustainability.

Between 1992 and 1994, 170,000 birds died. In 1996, an avian flu killed an estimated 15 – 20% of the west’s entire population of white pelicans and an additional 1,000 of endangered brown pelicans. 

In response, a restoration plan was created in 2000 which aimed to reduce wildlife disease, perform fish cleanups, develop educational curriculum about the area and initiate system tests to reduce salinity.

Unfortunately, a policy decision would compound the existing issues, and bring larger problems to the sea before that plan could be enacted …

Salton Sea 19 by Julian Lennon

Dust and Devastation

The Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003 diverted approximately 400,000 acre-feet of water from the Salton Sea to San Diego and other areas for urban development. Though this agreement arrived with a commitment from the state for habitat restoration, that support never materialsed.

The next decade would bring optimism in the form of actions including the Species Conservation Habitat Project and The Salton Sea Initiative. Unfortunately, the acceleration of climate change and rising temperatures, compounded by the lack of swift, significant restoration, resulted in the water becoming almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.

Furthermore, as more of the sea evaporated, aside from additional loss of wildlife, a new problem emerged: Air pollution, the result of toxic dust now released into the atmosphere from the surface of the barren land.

In the communities surrounding the The Salton Sea, childhood asthma rates skyrocketed to north of 20%. A recent study confirms the particles can trigger lung inflammation, not from traditional sources, but likely from bacterial elements (i.e. pesticides and heavy metals) instead. The dangers of exposure to poor air quality and decaying wildlife have nearby residents concerned and tourists avoiding the area.

So … what happens now?

Thankfully there is hope. In November, the Biden Administration pledged $250 million to help save the Salton Sea. Though many argue the sum is too small to completely restore the lake, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

There are also groups like The Salton Sea Authority and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge that work to preserve and protect the area in different ways.

Time will tell if these efforts and more will heal the Salton Sea, but regardless of the outcome it will serve as an important environmental lesson about the ramifications of poor earth stewardship for future generations to come.

The fine art photography by Julian Lennon featured in this article, and additional works from his Salton Sea collection, are represented by Posner Fine Art. The images are available to view and purchase at Artsy.

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Teri Hitt
Teri Hitt
January 19, 2023 01:07

Thank you for taking the time to research and create this important post
about the Salton Sea here in California. It will surely help to broaden
perspectives. We are the caretakers of the Earth. The sooner we realize
it the better.

Cathy Tully
Cathy Tully
January 26, 2023 04:59

Gorgeous photos – I feel like I am there.

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