Salton Sea

This page is about the body of water. For the movie, see The Salton Sea.
Missing image
The Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley as seen from the Space shuttle. North is to the upper right.

The Salton Sea is an inland saline lake, located in the Sonoran Desert in Southern California north of the Imperial Valley. The lake covers a surface area of 376 square miles (974 km²), making it the largest lake in California. However, it varies in dimensions due to changes in agricultural runoff, but averages 15 by 35 miles (24 by 56 km).

The sea falls within the territory of both Riverside County and Imperial County. Like Death Valley, it is located below sea level, with the current surface of the Sea at approximately 225 ft (66 m) below sea level. The Sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as a number of minor agricultural drainage paths and creeks.

The current water body was created in 1905 when heavy rainfall caused the Colorado River to swell and eventually breach an Imperial Valley dike. It took nearly two years to finally control the Colorado Riverís flow into the Salton Sink and stop the flooding. Itself once part of the vast inland sea which once covered the area, the endorheic Salton Sink was the site of a major salt mining operation. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding and Torres-Martinez Indian land were submerged. The result of the sudden influx of water and the lack of natural drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sink has had significant water bodies in it in the past. For example, scientists believe that 300 years ago a short-lived body of water called Lake Cahuilla existed in the valley. But those bodies of water eventually disappeared through evaporation. The Salton Sea, on the other hand, is constantly replenished by more than one million acre-feet (1.2 km³) of runoff from surrounding agricultural communities, sustaining its water level.

In the 1920s, the Salton Sea developed into a tourist attraction, because of its water recreation and the waterfowl attracted to the area. Indeed, the Salton Sea remains a major resource for migrating and wading birds. It has also had some success as a fishery, with species such as mullet, corvina, sargo, and tilapia being brought to the Sea from the 1930s to the 1950s, and as a resort area, with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores being built on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore in the 1950s. 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 on the eastern side of the Salton Sea.

However, the lack of an outlet means that the Salton Sea is increasingly becoming an unstable system; variations in agricultural runoff caused fluctuations in water level (and flooding of surrounding communities in the 1950-60s), and the high salinity of the agricultural runoff feeding the Sea has resulting in an ever-increasing level of salinity. By the 1960s it was becoming apparent that the salinity of the Salton Sea was continuing to rise, jeopardizing some of the species inhabiting it. In fact, the Salton sea currently has a salinity exceeding 40 ppm, making it saltier than ocean water, and many species of fish are no longer able to survive in the Salton. It is believed that once the salinity surpasses 44 ppm, only the tilapia will be able to survive. Additionally, fertilizer runoff combined with the increasing salinity and inflow of highly polluted water from the northward-flowing New River have resulted in large algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels. The New River is considered to be the single most polluted river in America.

The high level of bacteria is thought to be a major threat to the avian population. In 1992 and 1996 large-scale die-offs of grebes and pelicans occurred, demonstrating the unstable nature of the ecosystem.

High levels of selenium have also be found in the Sea and are thought to contribute to mortality and birth defect problems in the local bird populations. Algal blooms also lead to massive die-offs of the lake's fish population due to oxygen starvation; it is not unusual to see thousands of dead fish, mostly tilapia, lining the shore. As a result, many efforts, both governmental and grassroots, have arisen to attempt to find a solution for the pollution and salinity problems of the Sea. Without further human intervention both the Salton Sea (a result of accidental human intervention itself) and the animal populations using it are threatened. Currently, plans for large desalination plants, evaporation ponds, outlet pipelines to the ocean, and causeways dividing the lake into portions have been investigated as possible solutions.

Much of the current interest in the sea was spearheaded in the 1990s by Congressman Sonny Bono. His widow, Mary, elected to fill her husband's seat, has continued the fight as has Representative Jerry Lewis (not the entertainer of the same name) of Redlands.

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This motel in North Shore has been abandoned.

The increasing salinity, algae and bacteria levels have taken their toll on tourism; many of the Salton Sea resorts are now closed and abandoned. Additionally, before recent water control measures were implemented, the Salton Sea's surface tended to rise and fall severely, causing flooding problems in some of the surrounding communities. However, the area still draws over 150,000 vacationers a year, primarily to the local campsites, trailer parks and the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

The future of the Salton Sea is unclear, as intervention is required to manage the increasingly unstable system. Such intervention would require massive policy and financial commitments from the state and federal governments. Furthermore, the growing thirst of San Diego, and its willingness to pay top dollar for water, entices water districts to sell their water rather than dedicate it to agricultural purposes. As the Salton Sea is completely dependent on agricultural water runoff, the lake is highly dependent on the direction water politics takes in the coming years.

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