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The Salton Sea: California's wasteland

John Dunsmuir reports on a disastrous consequence of mankind’s interference with nature

The Salton Sea is a 900 km2 lake located in the middle of the Colorado Desert of California—but its existence is the result of a complete accident.

In 1900, the California Development Company attempted to divert the Colorado River, in the hope of fertilising the arid desert and creating an agricultural basin. Hence, the 23 km Alamo Canal was built. At first the plan succeeded; the Salton Sink became fertile and crops were planted. However, the water received was from the highly saline Imperial Valleys, and the Alamo Canal became filled with silt.

Attempts were made to alleviate blockages and divert the canal, but to no success. The winter of 1905 caused damage, as heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the canal to swell and burst. For the next two years, the entire Colorado River flowed freely into the Salton Sink, filling it with water—an ecological disaster had begun.

Governmental lawsuits against the California Development Company’s mismanagement ran for a decade. But where they found disaster, others found an opportunity. As the engineers left, developers moved in. They built houses, roads, schools, and all the other creature comforts of a modern society. One advert has described the Salton Sea developments as “a Palm Springs with water” and “a miracle in the desert—for many years, this was true.

However, the only inflow of water was the agricultural run-off from ancient salt deposits, which would result in increasing salinity and pollution. A body of water in the desert this large was a recipe for disaster. By the 1960s, evaporation caused the water to become saltier than the sea. Even the most resilient fish populations, introduced in the early 20th century when the lake was deemed as fresh, were beginning to suffer. Massive die-offs occurred as tens of thousands of fish washed up on the shore each year. Beaches became filled with crushed fished bones, with a smell described by the US Geological Survey as “noxious” and “objectionable” as they began to rot.

Temperatures often reached 48°C, making the air humid and unbreathable, while fertiliser run-off caused eutrophication (excessive enrichment of a body of water with nutrients). This led to an increase in algal blooms and bacteria levels, which posed a health risk to the local populations who had migrated to this desert haven. Furthermore, the location of the lake over the San Andreas Fault resulted in mudpots and even mud volcanoes, turning the landscape into a bubbling, hellish environment. During the 48°C summers, there was also uncontrollable flooding. Residents of the local towns were forced to flee their homes, often abandoning belongings. What were once miracle cities, were now becoming ghost towns.

Today, only a few thousand residents remain, with around 30% living at or below the poverty line. Roads sit named, waiting for developments that never came. The only tourism is from those interested in seeing a real ghost town. The lake itself has served as a reminder: to remain responsible with nature, to not put profit above wellbeing, and to consider the unconsidered consequences of our actions.

From Issue 14

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