The California Department of Parks and Recreation webpage for the Salton Sea begins with the statement: “Hardly a day goes by when my staff or I don’t get asked, ‘What’s wrong with the Salton Sea?’ ‘Is the salt killing the birds?’ ‘Why does it change colors?’ ‘What about the smell?'”
Any place that feels the need to divulge that people are asking about ‘the smell’ intrigues me. In addition, I had read something of the Salton Sea before, as a defunct dreamland, now desolate, hostile, and toxic. All these factors made the Sea a sight I was desperate to see.
We noticed the Sea first as a blue line in the light. The area around the Sea is so terrifically hot and dead that it shines white in the sunlight. Water blue stuck out like a sore thumb. Driving along-side the sea it looked like a normal like, although just about nobody was around.
When we finally pulled over for a closer look, we were a little startled: dead fish littered the shores; the ground seemed to be bursting from beneath (perhaps the giant mollusk gornaxis?), areas of the beach were covered with an inch-thick crust of salt. The water was brownish green.
The Salton Sea was the Salton Sink and nothing much as far as a lake goes before 1900. But people in southern California wanted water and the Colorado River seemed like a nice place to get it. Something called the California Development Company came up with a plan to build a canal or two, which they did.
Unfortunately, the canals filled with silt pretty quickly and a flood sent the entire Colorado River into the Salton Sink. Many parts of the Imperial Valley, where the Salton Sink is, are below sea level. There is no outlet from the Salton Sink, so any water that ends up there only gets out on the wings of evaporation. The Colorado dumped into the Sink for about two years creating the largest lake in California.
The Salton Sink was the site of extensive salt beds before they were drowned. And now, ninety percent of the Salton Sea’s inflow is from agricultural runoff, which is very high in salt, phosphate and nitrates. The Salton Sea has a higher salt content than the Pacific Ocean and is getting saltier.
The Sea, created by an accident and maintained by industrial waste (agricultural runoff), is still heralded (by a few) as “California’s Overlooked Treasure.”
About 1.3 million gallons of water flow into the Salton Sea annually, and about 1.3 million gallons of water evaporate annually. The 4 million tons of salt that accompany the water into the Sea stick around. For me, this salty sea, by having no outlet, illustrates a reality: if we are going to dump things and expect natural systems to take care of it, it would be wise to make sure we know just what will get left behind at increasing concentrations.