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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Salton Sea: It's a Complicated Story

The Salton Sea has a very long history, and it's complicated.  Originally part of the Gulf of Californiait is a depression created by between the Santa Rosa Mountains to the west, the Orocopia Mountains to the north and the Chocolate Mountains to the east.  Silt deposits stopped the flow of the Colorado River to the Gulf, allowing water to collect in the depression and then evaporate.  This process occurred repeatedly over millennia.

In the 1800s, pioneers to the region found accumulations of salts, soluble minerals.  Salt was mined in the dry lake bed. Canals built in 1901 by Charles R. Rockwood and George Chaffey Jr. to provide water to the area were filling with silt by 1904 and farmers were suffering.  Three more canals were dug in 1905 to increase the flow of water to Imperial Valley.  Heavy rains and an early El Nino in 1905 caused the Colorado River to flood, eroding Rockwood and Chaffey's canals, inundating the Salton area for 16 months, resulting in California's largest lake - 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. The surface of the Salton Sea is 227 feet below sea level.

The Salton Sea melds into the Santa Rosa Mountains
 in the distance.

Government regulations allowed agricultural waste waters to be channeled into the Salton Sea. The water continued to rise.   Without an outlet, salt from the soil and from agricultural run off increased the salinity of the lake until fresh water fish died off.  Salt water fish were introduced.


Resorts were built along the shore line in the 1920s.  During World War II, planes practicing water landings introduced barnacles to the Salton Sea.

By the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a very popular recreation area.  State parks were built along the shoreline. And the crowds came, including  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack, Guy Lombardo raced speedboats.  The Pointer Sisters and Beach Boys performed at the lake in the 1960s. According to locals, every day there was a party.  I found this video on the CNN website that provides the latest developments on the Salton sea.

Salt along the southern shoreline

Tropical Storms Kathleen (1976) and Doreen (1977) flooded the Salton Sea repeatedly, destroying shore line property, washing away marinas and yacht clubs.  Agricultural run off fed algae blooms which consumed oxygen in the lake, leading to fish die-offs.  The stench from these events drove a number of shoreline dwellers and visitors away.  Bacteria was linked to a fish and bird die-off in 1996.

Eric and I see military jets and helicopters flying over the Salton Sea.  We've been told that Navy pilots from the Naval Air Facility at El Centro fly over the Salton Sea so that they can add to their flight logs that they have flown below sea level.

The Salton Sea is becoming saltier.  The Salton Sea Authority Web Site lists the lake's salinity level at 25% higher than ocean water.

 Dead tilapia are found regularly on the beach.
The sand consists of  barnacles & dead fish.

California set up the Salton Sea Authority to revitalize the Salton Sea.  I hope the efforts
are successful.

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