Salton Sea

For other uses, see Salton Sea (disambiguation).
Salton Sea
Location Colorado Desert
Imperial and Riverside Counties, California, U.S.
Coordinates 33°18′N 115°48′W / 33.3°N 115.8°W / 33.3; -115.8Coordinates: 33°18′N 115°48′W / 33.3°N 115.8°W / 33.3; -115.8
Type Endorheic rift lake
Primary inflows Alamo River
New River
Whitewater River
Primary outflows None
Catchment area 8,360 square miles (21,700 km2)
Basin countries United States, Mexico
Surface area 343 sq mi (889 km2)
Max. depth 43 ft (13 m)
Water volume 6,000,000 acre·ft (7.4 km3)
Surface elevation −234 ft (−71.3 m) (below sea level)
Settlements Bombay Beach, Desert Beach, Desert Shores, Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, North Shore
References U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Salton Sea
Map of the Salton Sea drainage area

The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in California's Imperial and Coachella Valleys.

The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside Counties in Southern California. Its surface is 234.0 ft (71.3 m)[1] below sea level. The deepest point of the sea is 5 ft (1.5 m) higher than the lowest point of Death Valley. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo Rivers, as well as agricultural runoff, drainage systems, and creeks.

Over millions of years, the Colorado River has flowed into the Imperial Valley and deposited soil (creating fertile farmland), building up the terrain and constantly changing the course of the river. For the last thousands of years, the river has flowed into and out of the valley alternately, creating a freshwater lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a dry desert basin, depending on river flows and the balance between inflow and evaporative loss. The cycle of filling has been about every 400–500 years and has repeated itself many times. The latest natural cycle occurred around 1600–1700 as remembered by Native Americans who talked with the first European settlers. Fish traps still exist at many locations, and the Native Americans evidently moved the traps depending upon the cycle.

The most recent inflow of water from the now heavily controlled Colorado River was accidentally created by the engineers of the California Development Company in 1905. In an effort to increase water flow into the area for farming, irrigation canals were dug from the Colorado River into the valley. Due to fears of silt buildup, a cut was made in the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow. The resulting outflow overwhelmed the engineered canal, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, filling the historic dry lake bed and creating the modern sea, before repairs were completed.[2]

While it varies in dimensions and area with fluctuations in agricultural runoff and rainfall, the Salton Sea is about 15 miles (24 km) by 35 miles (56 km). With an estimated surface area of 343 square miles (890 km2) or 350 square miles (910 km2), the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California.[3][4] The average annual inflow is less than 1,200,000 acre feet (1.5 km3), which is enough to maintain a maximum depth of 43 feet (13 m) and a total volume of about 6,000,000 acre feet (7.4 km3). However, due to changes in water apportionments agreed upon for the Colorado River under the Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003, the overall water level of the sea is expected to decrease significantly between 2013 and 2021.[5]

The lake's salinity, about 56 grams per litre (9.0 oz/imp gal), is greater than that of the waters of the Pacific Ocean (35 g/l (5.6 oz/imp gal)), but less than that of the Great Salt Lake (which ranges from 50 to 270 g/l (8.0 to 43.3 oz/imp gal)). Recently, the concentration has been increasing at a rate of about 3% per year.[6] About 4,000,000 short tons (3.6×109 kg) of salt are deposited in the valley each year.[7]


The area was once part of a vast inland sea that covered a large area of Southern California. Geologists estimate that for three million years, at least through all the years of the Pleistocene glacial age, a large delta was deposited by the Colorado River in the southern region of the Imperial Valley. Eventually, the delta reached the western shore of the Gulf of California, creating a barrier that separated the area of the Salton Sea from the northern reaches of the Gulf. Were it not for this barrier, the entire Salton Sink, along with the Imperial Valley, including most of the area occupied by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, would all be submerged, as the Gulf would extend as far north as Indio.[8]

Since the exclusion of the ocean, the Salton Basin has over the ages been alternately a freshwater lake, an increasingly saline endorheic lake, and a dry desert basin, depending on river flows and the balance between inflow and evaporative loss. A lake exists only during times it is replenished by the rivers and rainfall, a cycle that has repeated itself many times over hundreds of thousands of years,[9] perhaps cycling every 400 to 500 years.[10]

Evidence that the basin was occupied periodically by multiple lakes includes wave-cut shorelines at various elevations preserved on the hillsides of the east and west margins of the present lake, the Salton Sea. These indicate that the basin was occupied intermittently as recently as a few hundred years ago. The last of the Pleistocene lakes to occupy the basin was Lake Cahuilla, also periodically identified on older maps as Lake LeConte or the Blake Sea, after American professor and geologist William Phipps Blake.

Throughout the Spanish period of California's history, the area was referred to as the "Colorado Desert" after the Colorado River. In a railroad survey completed in 1855, it was called "the Valley of the Ancient Lake". On several old maps from the Library of Congress, it has been found labeled "Cahuilla Valley" (after the local Native American tribe) and "Cabazon Valley" (after a local Native American chief – Chief Cabazon). "Salt Creek" first appeared on a map in 1867 and "Salton Station" is on a railroad map from 1900, although this place had been there as a rail stop since the late 1870s.[11] Until the advent of the modern sea, the Salton Sink was the site of a major salt-mining operation.[12]

Latest instance of the Salton Sea

Original caption: Dry Bed of Colorado River Below Imperial Intake [...] River Diverted Into Imperial Canal

In 1900, the California Development Company began construction of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed. After construction of these irrigation canals, the Salton Sink became fertile for a time, allowing farmers to plant crops.[13]

Within two years, the Imperial Canal became filled with silt from the Colorado River. Engineers tried to alleviate the blockages to no avail. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of headgates for the Alamo Canal. The resulting flood poured down the canal, breached an Imperial Valley dike, and ran down two former dry arroyos: the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east, each about 60 mi (97 km) long.[14] Over about two years, these two newly created rivers sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink.[10]

The Southern Pacific Railroad tried to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the canal's headgates area, but the effort was not fast enough, and the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley. A large waterfall formed as a result and began cutting rapidly upstream along the path of the Alamo Canal that now was occupied by the Colorado. This waterfall was initially 15 feet (4.6 m) high, but grew to 80 feet (24 m) high before the flow through the breach was stopped. Originally, it was feared that the waterfall would recede upstream to the true main path of the Colorado, becoming up to 100 to 300 feet (30 to 91 m) high, at which point it would be practically impossible to fix the problem.

Salton Sea

As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Native American land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.[15][16]

The continuing intermittent flooding of the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River led to the idea of the need for a dam on the Colorado River for flood control.

Subsequent evolution

A gaseous mud volcano

The Salton Sea had some success as a resort area, with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores, on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach, built on the eastern shore in the 1950s. However, many of the settlements substantially shrank in size, or have been abandoned, mostly due to the increasing salinity and pollution of the lake over the years from agricultural runoff and other sources. Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea. Many people now visit the Salton Sea and the surrounding settlements to explore the abandoned structures. The town of Niland is 1.5 miles (3 km) southeast of the sea, with a population of 1,006. Evidence of geothermal activity is also visible. Mudpots and mud volcanoes are found on the eastern side of the Salton Sea.[17] A number of geothermal electricity generation plants are located along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea in Imperial County. The 11 commercial power stations within the Salton Sea geothermal field produce 186.62 megawatts of electricity.[18]

The US Geological Survey describes the smell as "objectionable," "noxious," "unique," and "pervasive."[19]


Fish population

Due to the high salinity, very few fish species can tolerate living in the Salton Sea. Introduced tilapia are the main fish that can tolerate the high salinity levels and pollution. Other freshwater fish species live in the rivers and canals that feed the Salton Sea, including threadfin shad, carp, red shiner, channel catfish, white catfish, largemouth bass, mosquitofish, sailfin molly, and the endangered desert pupfish.[20]

Avian population

The Salton Sea has been termed a "crown jewel of avian biodiversity" by Dr. Milt Friend of the Salton Sea Science Office. Over 400 species have been documented at the Salton Sea. The most diverse and probably the most significant populations of bird life in the continental United States are hosted, rivaled only by Big Bend National Park in Texas.[21] It supports 30% of the remaining population of the American white pelican.[22] The Salton Sea is also a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway. On 18 November 2006, a Ross's gull, a high Arctic bird, was sighted and photographed there.[23]

Increasing salinity

Dead fish on the western shore of Salton City

The lack of an outflow means the Salton Sea does not have a natural stabilization system; it is very dynamic. Fluctuations in the water level caused by variations in agricultural runoff, the ancient salt deposits in the lake bed, and the relatively high salinity of the inflow feeding the sea are all causing ever-increasing salinity. The body was initially a freshwater lake, but by the 1960s its rising salinity had begun to jeopardize some of the species in it. With a salinity now exceeding 5.0% w/v (saltier than seawater), most species of fish can no longer survive there. A freshwater fish notable for its ability to withstand the rising salinity of the Salton Sea, the desert pupfish, can survive salinities ranging from 0.0% to 7.0%.[24] Fertilizer runoffs have resulted in eutrophication, with large algal blooms and elevated bacterial levels.[25]

By 2014, large swaths of lake bed were exposed and salt levels drastically increased due to mandated water transfers to metropolitan areas along the coast and other factors, limiting the water inflow. Besides the resulting fish kills, the shrinking lake interrupts the bird migration, causes dust clouds, and impacts local tourism negatively.[26]

Remediation efforts

Past efforts and proposals for a sea level canal

Map of New River and Alamo River courses

Alternatives for "saving" the Salton Sea have been evaluated since 1955.

The New River passes from Mexicali, Baja California, to the Imperial Valley, and on to the Salton Sea.

Much of the current interest in the sea was sparked in the 1990s by Congressman Sonny Bono.[27] His widow, Mary Bono Mack, elected to fill his seat, has continued to be interested in the Salton Sea, as has Representative Jerry Lewis of Redlands.[27] In 1998, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project was named for the politician.[27]

In the late 1990s, the Salton Sea Authority, a local joint powers agency, and the US Bureau of Reclamation began efforts to evaluate and develop an alternative to save the Salton Sea. A draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement, which did not specify a preferred alternative, was released for public review in 2000. Since that time, the Salton Sea Authority has developed a preferred concept[28] that involves the construction of a large dam that would impound water to create a marine sea in the northern and southern parts of the sea and along the western edge.

Satellite image of the Salton Sea with surrounding developments

Many other concepts have been proposed,[29] including piping water from the sea to a wetland in Mexico, Laguna Salada, as a means of salt export, and one by Aqua Genesis Ltd to bring in seawater from the Gulf of California, desalinate it at the sea using available geothermal heat, and sell the water to pay for the plan. This concept would involve the construction of over 20 miles (30 km) of pipes and tunneling, and, with the increasing demand for water at the coastline, would provide an additional 1,000,000 acre feet (1.2 km3) of water to Southern California coastal cities each year.[30]

State restoration plan

Abandoned, salt-encrusted structures on the Salton Sea shore at Bombay Beach

In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell a portion of its allotment from the Colorado River for 45 years to the San Diego County Water Authority.[31] The California State Legislature, by legislation enacted in 2003 and 2004, directed the Secretary of the California Resources Agency to prepare a restoration plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem, and an accompanying Environmental Impact Report.[32] As part of this effort, the Secretary for Resources has established an advisory committee to provide recommendations to assist in the preparation of the Ecosystem Restoration Plan, including consultation throughout all stages of the alternative selection. The California Department of Water Resources and California Department of Fish and Game are leading the effort to develop a preferred alternative for the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the protection of wildlife dependent on that ecosystem.

On January 24, 2008, the California Legislative Analyst's Office released a report titled "Restoring the Salton Sea."[32] The preferred alternative outlined in the draft plan calls for spending almost $9 billion over 25 years and proposes a smaller but more manageable Salton Sea. The amount of water available for use by humans and wildlife would be reduced by 60% from 365 mi2 (945 km2) to about 147 mi2 (381 km2). About 52 mi (84 km) of barrier and perimeter dikes – constructed most likely out of boulders, gravel, and stone columns – would be erected, along with earthen berms to corral the water into a horseshoe shape along the northern shoreline of the sea from San Felipe Creek on the west shore to Bombay Beach on the east shore. The central portion of the sea would be allowed to evaporate almost completely and would serve as a brine sink, while the southern portion of the sea would be constructed into a saline habitat complex. Construction on the project would be completed by 2035.

Salt deposits along the eastern shore of the sea

The sale of the Imperial water to San Diego County resulted in a reduction in agricultural runoff needed to replenish the sea. During the first 15 years, the irrigation district has been required to put water into the Salton Sea to compensate for the loss of runoff. Since the requirement expires in 2017, the district sent a letter to the California State Water Resources Control Board in 2014 asking that the board sponsor negotiations to get the state to fulfill its obligation to stop the deterioration of the sea. Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank, was warning that the lack of replenishment water was leading to a "period of very rapid deterioration."[33] The rapidly shrinking sea was a "looming environmental and public health crisis"[31] With the increased shrinkage, dust storms would increase and a rotten-egg smell could reach to the coastal cities.[33]

Earthquake geology

The Salton Sea and surrounding basin sits over the San Andreas Fault, San Jacinto Fault, Imperial Fault Zone, and a "stepover fault" shear zone system. Geologists have determined that previous flooding episodes from the Colorado River have been linked to earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault. Sonar and other instruments were used to map the Salton Sea's underwater faults during the study. During the period when the basin was filled by Lake Cahuilla, a much larger inland sea, earthquakes higher than magnitude 7 occurred roughly every 180 years, the last one occurring within decades of 1700. Computer models suggest the normal faults in the area are most vulnerable to deviatoric stress loading by filling in of water. Currently, a risk still exists for an earthquake of magnitude 7 to 8. Simulations also showed, in the Los Angeles area, shaking and thus damage would be more severe for a San Andreas earthquake that propagated along the fault from the south, rather than from the north. Such an earthquake also raises the risk for soil liquefaction in the Imperial Valley region.[34][35]

The effective drainage divide that separates the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California is about 9 m (30 ft) in elevation and is located near Delta, northeastern Baja California State, Mexico, south-southeast of Mexicali.[36] Past sea level rise may partially be responsible for the salinity of the lake, while potential future changes in sea levels could occur. However, other factors such as hydrothermal vents, diffusion of salt from minerals and sediment, including concentrated brine, and evaporites are another contributor to salinity, as is the recent lowering of lake levels raising the salinity, though sedimentary records show the lake surface elevation reached levels 10–12 m above world sea level in the 1500s.[37]

Water temperature

The temperature of the surface water changes with the seasonally varying air temperature. Winter lows can reach temperatures as low as 50 °F (10 °C) and summer highs can reach 95 °F (35 °C).[38]

Surface water temperature (Sandy Beach)
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
57 °F

14 °C

57 °F

14 °C

64 °F

18 °C

72 °F

22 °C

77 °F

25 °C

82 °F

28 °C

90 °F

32 °C

91 °F

33 °C

86 °F

30 °C

81 °F

27 °C

72 °F

22 °C

61 °F

17 °C

An abandoned boat stuck in the ground, close to the west coast marina of the Salton Sea


Salton sea from orbit[54]

See also


  1. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. "Salton Sea, History".
  3. "Restoration of the Salton Sea Final Report December 2007 – Chapter 1. Introduction" (PDF). U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region. Retrieved April 3, 2014.
  4. "LA Times: Drought, drawdowns and death of the Salton Sea".
  5. San Diego County Water Authority (2014). "Quantification Settlement Agreement". San Diego County Water Authority. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  6. See, linked at
  7. Khaled M. Bali (5 October 2013). "Salton Sea and Salinity". UC Davis, Cooperative Extension Imperial County. Retrieved 2015-06-29. The salinity of the Pacific Ocean is approximately 35,000 mg/l (1 ppm=1 mg/l). Colorado River water salinity is about 650–700 mg/L. Salton Sea salinity is about 44,000 mg/L, that is approximately 4.4% salt. The amount of salts that is deposited in the Imperial Valley agricultural land with irrigation water is approximately four million tons of salts annually.
  8. Alles, DL (2007-08-06). "Geology of the Salton Trough" (PDF). Biology Department. Western Washington University. Retrieved 2010-06-06.
  9. Singer E. "Ancient Lake Cahuilla – Geology of the Imperial Valley". Archived from the original on June 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  10. 1 2 Pat Laflin (29 July 2003). "The Salton Sea: California's Overlooked Treasure" (PDF). Coachella Valley Historical Society. pp. 21–26. Retrieved 11 February 2015.
  11. Carpelan, Lars H. History of the Salton Sea
  12. The Salton Sea – Its Beginnings. Accessed 2010-06-14
  13. "The Salton Sea: California's Overlooked Treasure, Chapter 4".
  14. Detailed maps, and a film of the breach (and subsequent redamming) are in Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a 2006 documentary
  15. Kennan, G (1917). The Salton Sea: An Account of Harriman's Fight With The Colorado River. New York: The MacMillan Company. Retrieved 2009-07-11.
  16. Larkin, EL (1907). "A Thousand Men Against A River: The Engineering Victory Over The Colorado River And The Salton Sea". The World's Work: A History of Our Time. XIII: 8606–10. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  17. Lynch, DK; Hudnut, KW (2008). "The Wister Mud Pot Lineament: Southeastward Extension or Abandoned Strand of the San Andreas Fault?". Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. 98 (4): 1720–9. doi:10.1785/0120070252.
  18. Five entries for Salton Sea plants 1 through 5 listed at "Database of California Power Plants (Excel Spreadsheet of plants greater than 0.1 megawatt), File date: May 1, 2014". California Energy Commission. Retrieved 2014-12-07. which gives values of 10.0, 21.75, 53.97, 51.0, and 49.9 MW, respectively totaling 186.62 MW.
  20. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2008). "Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge: Wildlife List" (PDF).
  21. Morrison, Patt (September 17, 2014) "A persuasive case for saving the Salton Sea, California's biggest lake" Los Angeles Times Interview with Tim Krantz
  24. Dudek and ICF International (2012). Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) Baseline Biology Report. (Draft). Prepared for the California Energy Commission.
  25. NASA page: "Algal bloom in the Salton Sea, California".
  26. Rañoa, Raoul (October 21, 2014) "'Drought, drawdowns and death of the Salton Sea" Los Angeles Times
  27. 1 2 3 CNN article: "Salton Sea rescue to be named for Sonny Bono".
  28. State of California
  30.; San Diego Union Times: Ronald Newcomb's Salton Sea proposal
  31. 1 2 Perry, Tony (September 3, 2014) "'Salton Sea inaction could cause 'catastrophic change,' report says" Los Angeles Times
  32. 1 2 Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program
  33. 1 2 Perry, Tony (November 21, 2014) "'Looming environmental crisis' at Salton Sea prompts plea for help" Los Angeles Times
  34. Brothers, Daniel, et al. "Loading of the San Andreas fault by flood-induced rupture of faults beneath the Salton Sea." Nature Geoscience 4.7 (2011): 486–492.
  35. Ross, JE (July 27, 2011). "Flooding of Ancient Salton Sea Linked to San Andreas Earthquakes". Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego. Scripps Oceanography News. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  36. Tingle, A. "Flood Maps". Flood. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  37. Wardlaw, GD; Valentine DL (January 2005). "Evidence for salt diffusion from sediments contributing to increasing salinity in the Salton Sea, California" (PDF). Hydrobiologia. 533 (1–3): 77–85. doi:10.1007/s10750-004-2395-8. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 16, 2007. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  39. "The Useless Sea". February 2016. Retrieved February 26, 2016.
  40. "The Accidental Sea". August 2011. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
  41. "Engineering Disasters 18 DVD". Retrieved February 11, 2013.
  42. "Stories of Hope: Palm Springs"Journey to Planet Earth
  43. "Life after people" (#206)Life after people
  44. Highway Dragnet at the American Film Institute Catalog
  45. "The Monster that Challenged the World". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  46. "LPTV Episode 12: Salton Sea [Full Length] (Video) – MTV".
  47. Holden, Stephen (October 13, 2011). "Last Resort Remains an Oasis of Dreams". The New York Times. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  48. "Awards for Bombay Beach". January 11, 2012. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  49. Goldberg, Harold (December 9, 2013). "Criminal Mind: The Reclusive Genius Behind the Grand Theft Auto Franchise". Playboy. Retrieved December 9, 2013.
  50. Harrington, Curtis (2013). Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business. Drag City. ISBN 978-1937112073.
  51. "Curtis Harrington's On the Edge". June 18, 2013. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  52. Gow, Gordon (August 1971). "Up from the Underground: Curtis Harrington". Films and Filmmaking. 17 (11): 17.
  53. FifGenFilms (2013-03-12), Radioactive - Behind The Scenes, retrieved 2016-09-01
  54. Salton Trough July 29, 2013

Further reading

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