Environmental Disaster at Salton Sea Is Now a Looming Public Health Crisis
Located in the middle of a desert, California’s Salton Sea — filled with abandoned buildings and beaches made of fish bones — looks like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but the apocalyptic landscape didn’t always look this way. In fact, the area was once more popular than Yosemite National Park.
So, how did a bustling resort town turn into a desert wasteland? Here’s what’s going on with the Salton Sea, California’s strangest environmental disaster that could be the state’s next big public health crisis.
Where Is the Salton Sea?
Roughly 150 miles east of Los Angeles lies California’s swathe of the immense Sonoran Desert. Hedgehog, prickly pear and saguaro cacti fleck the otherwise empty landscape — until you reach a particular valley, just an hour south of Palm Springs.
What Is the Salton Sea?
Located right in the middle of the part of the Sonoran known as the Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea is a manmade lake. The lake’s surface covers about 343 square miles, and — ironically — it’s located 236 feet below sea level.
Creation of California’s Largest Lake
Engineers from the California Development Company were attempting to bring water into the Imperial Valley to support the agriculture and farming in the region. To do so, engineers dug an irrigation canal from the Colorado River to the Alamo River channel.
Sustaining the Sea
The Salton Sea is now fed by the Alamo, New and Whitewater rivers — not to mention all the agricultural runoff. However, as an endorheic basin, the sea doesn’t drain very well. Instead, it acts as a basin, retaining water with no outflow to rivers or oceans.
Farms Plant Roots in the Desert
Why the agriculture? Well, the entrepreneurial-minded folks in the early 1900s realized that if you could bring water to the Salton Sink area, you could feasibly grow crops year-round under the desert sun.
Stopping the Flood
Although the government of California knew about the flooding of Imperial Valley, officials did little to stop the disaster. The waters destroyed train tracks and homes and showed no sign of dwindling. The job of cutting off the water flow fell to Southern Pacific Railway.
The Sea Becomes Permanent
In many ways, Southern Pacific Railway’s efforts were too late. Sure, they staved off the destruction of more farmland and homes, but the Salton Sink had completely flooded. Locals believed the man-made accident would dry up.
The Tourist Boom Begins
While this was technically the first natural disaster to strike the Salton Sink, it sure didn’t look like a disaster — at least not to folks who didn’t lose anything during the flood. In fact, to real estate developers and clever salespeople, the Salton Sea presented a new opportunity.
Something Fishy Arrives
The only thing the Salton Sea was missing? Fish. The California Department of Fish and Game became eager to stock the sea so visitors could flock to the lake for some sportfishing. Researchers at UCLA (and elsewhere) designed an entire ecosystem for the sea, introducing a variety of fish from both saltwater and freshwater environments.
1950s: Resort Boom in the California Riviera
Called the "California Riviera," this waterfront Palm Springs became a popular resort area during the 1950s, complete with water skiing and speedboats. One early adopter was oil tycoonPenn Philips, who established Salton City on the sea’s western shore. Philips built a yacht club, cut the land into lots and brought in busloads of buyers.
1960s: Stars Power the Sea
The first tourists to discover the California Riviera were Hollywood’s elite. Star-studded clubs, including Ace & Spades and the 500 Club, became hotspots for partying and boating. An annual crowd of 500,000 non-Hollywood visitors soon descended upon the Salton Sea, eager to mingle with celebrities.
1970s: The Price of Salt
Unfortunately, after the heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the party died down. Following a devastating, infrastructure-destroying flood in the 1970s, many business owners decided against rebuilding. Why? The water’s salinity was becoming a massive problem.
1980s: The Decline Worsens
As the sea grew saltier and saltier, the tourists became fewer and fewer. All that salt was hard on fish populations, and species began dying off en masse. Once sandy beaches turned to white bone beaches, and no one wants a beach house that’s fish graveyard-adjacent.
1990s: The Sea Dries Up
Although most Californians wanted nothing to do with the slowly-dying sea, some folks stuck it out. Finally, in 1986, the state announced that no one should consume fish caught in the Salton Sea, as the toxicity levels were deemed hazardous.
A Water Transfer Causes Waves
In 2003, the folks in charge of Imperial Valley — which shares the Salton Sea with the neighboring Coachella Valley — sold off the land’s water rights. The city of San Diego, located just a few hours southwest of the sea, was the buyer.
Mozambique Tilapia Crowd the Beaches
Okay, so what’s living there now? Considered to be one of the world’s most invasive species, the Mozambique tilapia is putting up a good fight against the water’s salinity, but there’s little the population can do to combat other issues, namely, the lack of oxygen in the water, which is eaten away by runoff and toxins.
A Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Dubbed the "crown jewel of avian biodiversity" by the Salton Sea Science Office’s Dr. Milt Friend, the former California Riviera has the second-most diverse avian population in the U.S., falling just behind Texas’ Big Bend National Park.
Resort Towns Revisited: Salton City
Oil magnate and land developer Penn Phillips established Salton City hoping to serve 40,000 residents. Starting in the ‘70s with the onslaught of floods along the shore and continuing into the ‘80s with the growing concerns over toxicity and salinity, the Imperial Valley’s largest settlement became a shell of the resort town it was planned to be.
Resort Towns Revisited: Bombay Beach
Across the sea from the once-popular Desert Shores and Salton City lies Bombay Beach, a former tourist hotspot on the eastern shore. According to the 2010 census, just 295 people call the town home. The median household income was reported to be around $17,708.
The Most Polluted River in the United States
Although the river channel has existed for centuries, what is now called New River (or Río Nuevo) was formed during the same incident that "created" the Salton Sea. The river flows north toward the Salton Sea, through Mexicali, Baja, Mexico and into Calexico, California.
The San Andreas Fault
To make matters worse, the Salton Sea is located on the southernmost portion of California’s infamous San Andreas Fault. According to the Los Angeles Times, seismologists have long feared the sea "could be the epicenter of a massive earthquake."
A “Slow-Moving Natural Disaster”
Called a "slow-moving natural disaster" by the Los Angeles Times, the latest threat identified in the Salton Sea area is a bubbling, muddy spring. And it seems to be on the move, cutting its way through dry earth.
Geothermal Vents & Mud Pots
Although they look like hot springs, so-called mud pots near the Salton Sea don’t spout mud because they’re boiling. Instead, the mud pots are a natural way for carbon dioxide formed beneath the Earth’s surface to escape.
Toxic Dust Storms
If a muddy spring devouring the desert and disastrous earthquakes aren’t terrifying enough, the Salton Sea is also a breeding ground for toxic dust. With the lakebed drying up, toxic dust particles are more likely to be swept up into the air.
Discounting the Sea: Environmentalists
With all these issues, why isn’t more being done to save the Salton Sea? Well, a lot of environmentalists actually discount the importance of the sea — or at least they discounted its legitimacy in the past — and now that initial negligence has added up.
Discounting the Sea: Lawmakers
If environmentalists discount the significance of salvaging the Salton Sea, you can bet that lawmakers have also largely discounted it and ignored its problems. After all, the sea falls into that "out of sight, out of mind" category — until the tell-tale stench wafts into LA.
Bombay Beach Re-Imagined
Remember Bombay Beach? In recent years, the nearly abandoned town has seen a sort of artistic rebirth. Artists and hipsters looking to find bohemian spaces out in the desert have started to transform the derelict buildings into crafted installation art pieces.
Beachfront Property That’s Fish Graveyard Adjacent
Thanks in part to the Bombay Beach Biennale, a new wave of artists and hipsters have descended upon the town’s desolate shores. According to The Guardian "some bungalows which cost a few thousand dollars 15 years ago now fetch tens of thousands of dollars."
Desert Oddities: Salvation Mountain
Even apart from Bombay Beach, "outsider artists" thrive in the desert. Northeast of Niland and just outside a place called Slab City stands a visionary environment known as Salvation Mountain, a large-scale art installation 50 feet high and 150 feet wide.
Desert Oddities: International Banana Museum
Perhaps it’s no surprise such a strange desert is full of other oddities-turned-tourist-destinations. For example, in the nearby town of Mecca, which lies between the Salton Sea and Palm Springs, stands the International Banana Museum. (Appeeling, right?)
The Future of the Sea: Financing Change
Despite these ad hoc initiatives by artists to draw tourists to the area, the Salton Sea’s future remains uncertain. Between 2000 and 2008, millions of dollars in initiatives at the state and federal levels never materialized. However, in January 2016, California approved an $80 million allocation for the sea.
The Future of the Sea: Uncharted Territory
Throughout 2018 and 2019, Palm Desert’s Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., has worked to secure additional funding, the creation of foundational legislation and — perhaps most importantly — commitments from federal agencies to alleviate the imminent health crisis and environmental issues.