Salton Sea

California USA, 1 October 2016

With Jeni Bate of Skyscapes for the Soul.

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This day we drove clockwise around the Salton Sea.  This post show the journey from Salton City to Bombay Beach as well as comments on the history and current fortunes of the Salton Sea.

(Click on any image for a larger view).

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

As you read the account that unfolds  below, you may wish to come back to this map occasionally.  Note the Salton Sea at the top, the American Canal that is now the main source of water diverted from the Colorado River at just above the border, Canal Central (the diversion from the early 20th century) below that in Mexico, the Colorado river flowing from top right and the Gulf of California (or the Sea of Cortez) at the bottom.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The Salton Sea at the north-east corner.

Most readers will be aware of the long peninsula below California in Mexico which is the Baja California Peninsula.  The body of water between that and the rest of Mexico is the Gulf of California.  The peninsula and gulf are a consequence of seismic activity along the San Andreas fault, a part of which runs under the Gulf of California and along the valley to the north of it, including the Salton Sea.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The ecology of the Salton Sea is also highly connected with the Colorado River.  Five million years ago, the Colorado River was much more minor or did not exist as such and there were massive glacial lakes in the centre of North America, held there by glacial ice.  There was a catastrophic collapse of the ice wall, like a giant dam collapsing, and huge amounts of water were released along the Colorado River, carving out the Grand Canyon in a relatively short period of time.  Around 600,000 years ago there were also several episodes where the canyon was dammed by volcanic lava and after a time spectacularly broke though.  This creates lots of sediment which has to go somewhere and the Colorado River comes out at the Gulf of California.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Once there were palm trees, planted in the 50s or 60s.  Now few survive.

So the end of the Gulf of California is also the delta of the Colorado River.  Even with water in it, the Salton Sea is below sea level, so the delta of the Colorado River has blocked it off from being part of the Gulf of California.  The Salton Sea is not thought to have previously been part of the Gulf of California though.  Rather, the whole valley it is in sunk as a result of seismic activity along the San Andreas fault.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Tombstone for a palm tree, now in the desert.

The course of the Colorado River at the delta is very changeable since it flows though loose alluvial soils.  The area below sea level in the Salton Watershed is also much larger than the current Salton Sea.  In the last thousand years water from the Colorado River has poured in to fill this area four times, forming a body of water called Lake Cahuilla, and then receding.  The last time it dried up was around 1700.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Salt, water, mountains.

The Salton Sea is an historical accident.  In the nineteenth century it was dry.  From 1900 Charles Robinson Rockwood constructed a canal to divert water from the Colorado River to enable irrigation of potential farmland in the Imperial Valley below what is now the Salton Sea.  The canal initially ran parallel to the river.  The mouth of the canal silted up so he cut another.  This silted up too so he cut another, larger opening.  But this time, cutting financial corners, he failed to construct a gate to regulate floods.  And in 1905, there was a massive flooding of the Colorado River.  It changed course to flow along the canal and poured into the Salton Sink unchecked for two years, creating the Salton Sea.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Dead fish on the salt.

Eventually, after massive expense and remarkable effort, Edward Harriman of the Southern Railroad Company plugged the gap but the Salton Sea was born.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Lots of dead fish on the salt.

In response to fears of flood and drought, and to avoid canal water sourced from Mexico, there was a massive project in the 1930s to build the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and a new All-American canal north of the Mexican border to irrigate the land between the border and the Salton Sea.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

This and earlier images are Salton City and surrounds.  Here we have a resident who has managed to retain and water their palm trees.

There came to be a successfully irrigated agricultural industry but the modified flow of the Colorado River affected Mexico as well as the US.  An international agreement short-changed Mexico which only received one third to one half of the water that went to the Imperial Valley.  The magnificent delta lands at the mouth of the Colorado were also greatly compromised.  Previously it had been a wetlands paradise for wildlife.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The end, but of what?  The end of Time?  The end of Western Civilisation?  The end of Life as we know it?  The end of Memory? The end of speculative development projects? The end of water?  The end of the Salton Sea?  The end of words?  Or is it just where Jim Morrison came when he wrote “This is the end …”?.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The level of the sea has not always remained constant though.  Notwithstanding the Hoover Dam, there were floods in the seventies and eighties that raised the level for a while and then subsided.  The level now is lower than it was in say the 1960s.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

In 1958, M Penn Phillips launched Salton City to replace the desert as “the Salton Riviera”.   There were to be 250,000 lots with roads, electricity, sewage, a golf course and a marina.  Nine thousand fan palms were planted.  Lots were sold on the never-never where buyers didn’t own anything until all payments were made.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Once a Marina, perhaps.

Phillips bailed out in 1960 and by the end of the 1960s the bubble had deflated.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Still a jetty and a boat though the water has receded from the original jetty.  This is probably at Desert Shores.

As early as 1927 there was fishing, boating and waterskiing on the sea and for a while there was an edge of glamour with this.  During the sixties and seventies the Salton Sea was a fisherman’s paradise and a refuge for large numbers of migratory birds.  From the 90s it has become a poisonous ecological disaster.  Millions of fish died at a time.  There were massive epidemics of seabirds.  Bad odours have wafted from the lake, especially during die-off events.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

We left the lake for a while to walk in a nearby valley.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Ever left your car and not sure you can find it again?  Especially a rental car?

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The key didn’t seem to work and I couldn’t get the motor to turn over.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

There seemed to be something wrong with the car but there was no mechanic nearby.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife .

Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Lone pelican on a pole.

(For this and the next seven images, we are at or near North Shore Beach and Yacht Club).

The Salton Sea is a sink.  It is below sea level.  There is nowhere else for the deposits of the water to go.  The water there is saltier than sea water but that is not the problem because other salt lakes can be much saltier and still support abundant bird life.  It also has concerning levels of metals such as selenium, washed down the Colorado, but this is not the problem either.  It received agricultural runoff mainly from the US and also sewage and industrial waste from Mexico, which builds up year by year.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

A few surviving palm trees.

Corvina (cilus gilberti), a large seawater fish from Central and South America, was introduced to the sea in the 1950s.  Then tilapia, mainly freshwater fish from Africa, were introduced to the sea in the 1960s to the great delight of the corvina.  The salinity of the lake at that time, about the same as seawater, was not a problem for the tilapia and the level of nutrients from the agricultural runoff meant that they flourished.  Consequently, the population of corvina skyrocketed to an extraordinary extent.  It was easy to catch 20-pound corvina (9 kilos) and 30-pound (14 kilo) fish were also available.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Pelican on the wing.  Perhaps the rared brown pelican rather than the white one.

From the eighties and especially from the nineties, the sea started to become too salty for the tilapia and the excess nutrients continued to build up resulting in excessive blue green algae, bacteria and parasites.  This came to include selenium-contaminated pile worms, cyanobacteria, botulism spores and amyloodinium gill parasites.  This produced die-offs of millions of tilapis in single events.  There was a bird sanctuary at the south of the sea.  Then came mass bird die offs, principally grebes, pelicans and cormorants, from eating the poisoned fish.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Lots more dead fish again.

Given that the Salton Sea is a sewage sink, this problem is going to get worse.  The fish are largely or entirely gone now and fish-eating birds are scarce.  The sea is on their migration routes but continuing loss of habitat means there may not be somewhere else for them to go.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The fisherman seems to have stepped aside for a smoko.  Perhaps there were no fish to catch anyway.

There have been studies on how to effect a solution and two main alternatives emerged.

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One was to physically divide the sea in two, half for “fresh” water and the other half for an evaporative sump.  In the long term though, nutrients and salts would continue to come in and this would not work.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Tyre and rust.

The other was to pump water from the Gulf of California to the Salton Sea, restoring the sea to the level of say the 1960s.  At the same time, there would be a controlled outflow the other way.  This could extract pollutants using the mothballed Yuma desalination plant, which was completed but never used because a flood destroyed the canals that would supply it.  The flushing is necessary because otherwise there would still be a buildup of pollutants.  In time fish could be introduced again.  However, this would require the cooperation of Mexico which would require special treatment since it has received the raw end of the deal so far.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

More dead fish.

Neither of those options eventuated.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

My guess is that this was a boat and what pokes up is the mast.

The Salton Sea is drying out and must have deteriorated significantly since I was there in 2016.  In 2003, measures were taken to improve efficiency of water usage in the Imperial Valley, including moving from flushing the soil with water runoff to drip irrigation.  The unanticipated effect of this though was to reduce the excess water flowing into the Salton Sea.  At the same time, there was an agreement to transfer large amounts of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.  An “easement period” in which it was assumed that relief measures would be taken for the Salton Sea, expired in 2018.  Nothing had been done for the sea in the intervening period.  From 1st January 2018, 40% less water flows into the Salton Sea.  That must be having a significant effect.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

Former pleasure craft or fishing craft.  Not currently much in use it seems.

Some remedial action is occurring but not much.  It follows a solution for another problem.  Owen’s Lake, inland from San Francisco and Los Angeles, was drained for Los Angeles water in the early 20th century.  By the second half of the 20th century it had become the single largest source of dust in the US.  From 1997 they replaced the dustbowl with a series of shallow ponds, which solves that problem though requires continuing maintenance.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

The shore has receded.  We are at Bombay Beach, once a celebrity destination.

A similar proposal has started for the Salton Sea.  However, it only affects a small area at the southern end of the sea.  For the rest, the sea will continue to recede and give rise to dust clouds laden with insecticides and other toxins.  In due course this will probably become a noticeable problem for LA as well.  Already there have been very high levels of asthma for decades in people living in the Imperial Valley south of the sea.  Conditions south of the border in Mexico are likely to be worse.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

There is another solution that Nature itself may provide.  Seismic activity along the San Andreas fault could open a fissure so that water rushes in and the entire Salton sink becomes part of the Gulf of California.  That may not be a desirable solution for the many people that live or farm there.  It may even be inevitable.  But even if so, it may not happen for maybe even millions of years.

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Desert, Ecology, History, Irrigation, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Salton Sea, Travel, Wilderness, Wildlife

… and the population has receded too.

It’s easy to look at this as a severe problem in an isolated obscure area that nobody much has heard of or should worry about.  But it’s also part of an ecological crisis in the south west of the US associated with twenty years of drought in the Colorado Basin.

More generally, it is a metaphor for what we are doing to the environment and how urgently our action is required.  Climate change, over-consumption and overpopulation are rapidly undermining our world.  This calls for well considered action.  Solutions are expensive but so is ignoring the problems.  Pretending there is no problem and doing nothing will not work.

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My primary source for this account has been Salt Dreams by William de Buys and Joan Myers.  I have also made some reference to Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, A history of water — and the Salton Sea — in Imperial by Neal V Hitch, Salton Sea: California drought could soon see the state’s largest body of water sleeping with the fishes by Tim Walker and Dust Rising by Michael Zelenko.

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(I have usually been posting once a week but this post has been delayed by the time required for research.  The next post has infrared images and that is also likely to be delayed because they are time-consuming to process, and also because I have some other tasks including preparing, printing and framing three images for an exhibition.)

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6 comments on “Salton Sea

  1. David P. says:

    From an Imperial Valley native, this article was well worth the wait. I remember fishing for corvina back in the day when the Beach Boys, who had a boat docked at the marina, would come down on weekends to sail the Salton Sea which truly was a desert paradise.

    The solution I have favored is a “transfusion” from the Gulf of California. Creating an evaporative sump is only a remedial action that does not solve the problem of a receding shoreline and the resulting toxic dust bowl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Murray Foote says:

      Thanks very much David.

      Having only seen it recently, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in its days as a desert paradise.

      I agree about the transfusion. It just requires political will and a lot of money. The longer they leave it though, the more necessary it will be and the more expensive.

      (Sorry for the slow reply. WordPress has stopped notifying me about comments).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kerry Sattler says:

    Excellent photographs and commentary Murray.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great write-up, Murray, but I believe you made two factual errors. The Salton Sink was at some time part of the gulf of California, as far up as Indio, and you can see some of the evidence of this in a line on the hills to the west of Desert Shores which were carved out by the original sea-level waves. Also you said one of the proposed plans for the Salton Sea restoration was to pump water from the Sea to the Gulf of California. The plan is actually primarily the other way around, to get more water in from the Gulf, although there is a sub-plan that would eventually recycle water back out to the Gulf. Inflow to the Sea, however, is the initial objective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Murray Foote says:

      Thanks heaps Jeni!

      The first was not a mistake. I got my information from “A history of water — and the Salton Sea — in Imperial” by Neal V Hitch (link at the end of the article). He says that first there was the Imperial Sea as far north as the Coachella Valley. Then the Colorada River delta filled up the valley to the north of the Gulf of California and the Salton Sink dried up. Then the Colorado river overflowed into the Salton Sink several times, creating Lake Cahuilla up to 39 feet above sea level. Each time the river diverted again to the Gulf and the Salton Sink dried up completely.

      So according to that, what you are seeing is probably the old shore of Lake Cahuilla which would have been higher than the shore of the Imperial Sea.

      The second I was confused about and have corrected. Thank you.

      (Sorry for the slow reply. WordPress has stopped notifying me about comments).

      Liked by 1 person

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