Located along the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, it’s 225 feet below sea level, and is 25% saltier than the ocean. But it’s beginnings were much different than any other body of water in the state.
It all started with an engineering error. In 1900 irrigation canals were built to divert water from the Colorado River into the low lying Salton Sink to allow farmers to plant crops. But a couple of years later the Colorado River flooded and tons and tons of water went crashing down the irrigation canals into the Salton Sink and ultimately formed the Salton Sea. There were many attempts to stop the flooding but nothing was successful until the Hoover Dam was built in 1935.
Problem solved? Or only the beginning of a worse problem?
The sea was re-worked into a resort vacation destination and in the 1950’s and 60’s the Salton Sea had more visitors than Yosemite National Park! Campers and boaters would come to enjoy the swimming and fishing offered by California’s largest lake. It was a going concern!
But the 1970’s saw floods and hurricanes that destroyed the resort area. The popular bar and mobile home park washed away and the place was never the same.
And that wasn’t the end of the Salton Sea’s troubles. In 1996 there was avian botulism that killed 14,000 pelicans and 19,000 other birds. In 1998 Newcastle’s disease killed 17,000 birds. Then in 1999 there was a massive fish die-off due to increasing levels of algae and bacteria that led to the death of 7.6 million fish.
Because there is no outflow the salinity of the sea increases every year and now only one kind of fish can survive- the tilapia. When they die, they wash up on the beach which is covered with dried up tilapia.
You can imagine what 110 degree heat does to all those dead fish in the summer months and it’s no wonder it isn’t a resort destination anymore. By the way this is not a white sand sand beach with lovely seashells – those are super sharp barnacles and bones! No wearing sandals here (I learned the hard way).
Despite it’s troubled past, today the Salton Sea is a fantastic bird watching location with 400 species of birds including 30% of the population of the American White Pelican. It’s a major stop on the “pacific flyway.”
There have been and continue to be many efforts to save the Salton Sea. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. We were there in winter so there were no signs of algae blooms and no smell of rotting fish. We had a beautiful campsite right on the lake. Just don’t forget to wear proper shoes!