• Image about Salton Sea
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

COACHELLA VALLEY, CA - AUGUST 10: A new wetland created from an area of the Salton Sea which has receded leaving behind only decaying, desicated conditions, on August 10, 2009 in the Coachella Valley, California. Many myths surround the notorious Salton Sea, but one fact exists: If it isn’t saved, it could result in one of the biggest environmental nightmares in U.S. history.

Few people in this part of California seem to agree about the Salton Sea. It has been much maligned for a variety of reasons — its fish and bird die-offs, its ever-changing shoreline, and its intermittent, sulfurous stench. (“Got nose plugs?” was the Palm Springs rental car clerk’s quip when I told him of my destination.)

The Golden State’s largest lake is a pool of contradictions and conflicting agendas. At 35 miles long, 15 miles across, and 228 feet below sea level, the lake has been much misunderstood. Yes, the combination of strong water currents, wind, and decaying fish and invertebrate carcasses can make the Salton Sea smell like rotten eggs at times. But no, the water is not poisonous. Yes, agricultural runoff, river salts, and sediment that flow into the Sea stay there, but the marshes that fringe the Sea still support millions of birds, making it one of the most diverse roosting and feeding grounds in the country. And despite the rotting fish carcasses piling up on the beaches today, at one time the Sea supported one of the country’s most productive fisheries. Fishermen literally shoveled fish out of the water.

There are a few points about the Salton Sea, though, that seem to merit general agreement: The Sea is drying up, it is possible to alter the process, it will cost billions of dollars to do so, and where that money will come from — especially now that we’re living in an uncertain financial climate — is anyone’s guess.
If the lake does become a twenty-first–century dust bowl, scientists and local leaders fear it could unleash an economic and environmental nightmare. It might also prove that Palm Springs and Salton City aren’t that different after all.

As you drive south from the Coachella Valley resort towns — Palm Springs, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and La Quinta — the Salton Sea gradually comes into view like an impossible desert mirage. As you reach the base of the dark and dry Chocolate Mountains, the blue shimmer appears to fill the horizon.

Over time, lakes and inland seas have periodically formed in this sink. Free-flowing rivers seldom stick to one course for long, and before the age of dams, the Colorado River meandered like any other, sometimes flowing south into the Gulf of California and sometimes north into the Salton Basin. By analyzing the remains of fish and shellfish in Native American middens, archaeologists have confirmed that an inland sea formed here in 700 AD and again 400 years ago.

The Salton Sea’s most recent incarnation, though, raged into being in 1905, when fierce winter storms breached a Colorado River irrigation canal near Yuma, Arizona, sending the river’s entire flow into the Salton Basin. It took 18 months, millions of dollars, and federal intervention to return the massive river to its former course. By then, the Salton Sea as it’s known today had formed.

Like the Caspian Sea or the Dead Sea, the new lake had no natural inlet or outlet. Yet water from the Colorado River continued to flow into the Sea from the Imperial Valley vegetable fields, which had been kept fertile by millennia of river silt and by modern irrigation. The tail water that the farms didn’t use ended up stabilizing the Sea at a size about twice that of Lake Tahoe. While this agricultural runoff replaced the water that evaporated from the Sea, it also added salts, pesticides, and phosphate fertilizers to the mix. Before long, the Sea was about 33 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, though considerably less salty than Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

As the years passed, this accumulation of salt made the lake water buoyant and fast. Then in the 1950s, hoping to encourage tourism, the California Department of Fish and Game stocked the Sea with sport marine fish like orangemouth corvina, sargo, and croaker.

Eventually, by 1960, the combination of easy fishing, boating speed records, and great waterskiing transformed the towns along the northern and western shore into what people called California’s Riviera. Celebrity yachts crowded marinas. Developers planted palm trees along newly paved streets. Real estate speculators bought lots after simply flying over them. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, and the Beach Boys frequented the tiki bars and country clubs. Bing Crosby teed up at the nearby golf courses. Sonny Bono even learned to water-ski on the Salton Sea. And for a few years, this improbable lake in the desert attracted half a million vacationers, logging more visitor days than Yosemite National Park. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.