Confession: I Was Ignorant About Salton Sea

When I first began to think about walking the entire shoreline of Salton Sea I admit that it was mostly selfish. “My” bucket list, “my” adventure, “my” fun. Me, me me. I loved Salton Sea as a child and it always held a special place in my heart and memories, but I guess I always took it for granted. I always assumed it would be there for me to enjoy, no matter what.  Now that I have begun spending more time there, researching locations, local businesses, and wildlife, I have realized how ignorant I have been about Salton Sea and how if we don’t take action now, it might be too late and we could lose it – and losing it would not be a good thing.

Salton Sea can easily dry up

The first thing that I’ve assumed all-along is that Salton Sea is so large that it’s just a permanent part of California.  Even though I knew that it was created by “accident” I just figured that it was simply “too big to fail” or dry up.  I’ve learned that this is not the case.

Because of the extreme summer temperatures, approximately 66 inches of water evaporates out of Salton Sea yearly. By contrast, the sea receives only about 3 inches of rain water per year. I’m no math genius, but I can see that without some way to make up that difference, the sea is going to dry up.  For the last 100 years or so this difference in water was made up by farm irrigation runoff flowing into the sea, but this is changing.  Recently less and less water has been going into Salton Sea and more and more is and will continue to be diverted to areas like San Diego that need the water.

When I visited Salton Sea earlier this year after a 35 year absence I saw clear evidence that it was already beginning to dry up.  In 1979 the shoreline of my old camping ground at Corvina Beach was only a few yards from road.  Today, it is nearly 100 yards away illustrating reports that the Salton Sea has shrunk in size by nearly 15 miles in only the last few years.  If something is not done Salton Sea will dry up.

It’s getting saltier and smellier

When Salton Sea was formed by Colorado River water about 110 years ago, it was hardly salty at all.  But because of the natural salt in the ground (left by ancient lakes drying up), the constant inflow of irrigation bringing in more dissolved salts, high evaporation rate, and no water-outlets, it gets saltier every year.  When camping there as a kid in the 1970’s, Salton Sea was hardly salter than the ocean. Today it’s a lot saltier than the ocean, and it increases by about 1% each year.  At this rate it won’t be long before the salt alone kills all of the fish, then barnacles, then pretty much everything else.

Along with the salinity constantly assaulting the fish at Salton Sea is the algae.  As the summertime temperatures heat the water, the algae “blooms”.  When this happens it consumes a high percentage of the oxygen out of the water.  Once the bloom hits a tipping point it can suck so much oxygen out of the water that the fish can no longer ‘breathe’ and they begin to die.  In the late 1970’s we witnessed one of the first (then new and mysterious) fish die-offs, leaving millions of dead fish washed up on the shore.  Since then it has become an almost yearly event.  These fish die-offs not only impact the fishing (can’t catch any fish if they’re all dead!) but it also creates a tremendously horrible smell and leaves blankets of fish bones on the shore making Salton Sea unpleasant to say the least, and drives away tourists and visitors.

People actually live at and rely on the Salton Sea

As a youngster camping at Salton Sea I never considered the people that live in the area. Honestly, they never entered my mind.  Now after stepping through virtually every city and neighborhood along the shores of Salton Sea, meeting and speaking with residents and business owners, I now have an appreciation of the economic and social implications of what can happen if we let Salton Sea die.

As the sea continues to shrink, so does the amount of visitors, fishermen and tourists. Less visitors and tourism means less customers at local gas stations, restaurants, mini-markets, bait-shops, etc. Less customers means business close. Closed businesses mean less jobs.  It’s a downward spiral.  If something is not done or if things don’t change more people will be forced to move away. Those that cannot afford to move are trapped with less and less of those local services and businesses that they need, forcing them to travel further, raising their costs to live even more, making the trap even tighter.  I don’t pretend to understand the enormity of the social-economic impact of the slow death of Salton Sea, but I can see that it’s not just about saving the fish or saving the ecology, it’s about saving real people, real families and their way of life.

The birds

The subject of wildlife and in particular, birds at Salton Sea is probably where I have been most ignorant.  I’ve known for years, especially since the dedication of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge, that Salton Sea was an important stopover for migrating birds.  But I never truly understood it’s importance. In the past I had even argued the case that if Salton Sea were to suddenly go away, the birds would simply just go wherever they went in 1904, before Salton Sea was formed – no big deal.

photo of birds flying at Salton Sea, off Corvina Beach

Salton Sea supports a huge variety of bird species

The problem with my previous [ignorant] logic, and what I now realize, is that today most of those places that birds lived and stopped at during migration before Salton Sea existed are now Walmart Parking lots and mega-shopping malls!  The birds have no place else to go. Today, more than ever Salton Sea is a very important part of the migration ‘flyway’ that the birds rely on.

The dust bowl of Salton Sea

Think for a moment about what Salton Sea is.  It is like (as quoted in a “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” ) a puddle at the bottom of a dry swimming pool.  Just like any puddle at the bottom of the pool, that’s where all the gross stuff is.  For over 100 years irrigation-run off full of chemicals, nitrates, phosphates, sewage, and who knows what else has been flowing into Salton Sea.  Most of this bad stuff dissolves and isn’t an issue “in the water” because it all sinks and settles to the sea floor.  Now imagine that the puddle at the bottom of the pool dries up. What’s left? A pile of what looks like dirt. Now imagine a stiff wind.  Where does that dirt and dust go?

Again, in my ignorance, I had never considered this potential problem.  I know that the winds in this area can be powerful – just look at the wind-mill farm only a few miles north near Palm Springs.  Now imagine all that fine, near-invisble, dirty, poison dust blowing all over Indio, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, and god-forbid, Palm Springs.  And what’s to keep it from reaching further north to areas like the Inland Empire?  Let Salton Sea dry up and die, and sadly, we will all find out, and many experts agree that we aren’t going to like it.

So what’s the answer?

I’m sure I’ve missed, and am still ignorant of many of the issues that Salton Sea faces (please post a comment if you know more), and I don’t pretend to be smart enough to have the answers to any of these problems (please post your answers in a comment below!).

Saving or even just maintaing Salton Sea will be complicated.  It will be expensive, and nobody wants to pay for it and the longer we wait the worse it gets.  But if we are ignorant about the issues like I was, or if we just ignore the problems or kick the can down the road for someone else to worry about, I’m smart enough to realize that we aren’t going to be happy with the result.

If even me, a self-proclaimed “Salton Sea lover” has not paid close enough attention to know about these things, how much do you think Average Joe and Average Jane know or care?


  1. Jasmyn Phillips

    I’ve been visiting the Salton Sea since I was a child. I was shocked to see how much the Sea has receded over the years. I will be very sad if it is left to dry up like other endorheic lakes. The effects on humans and wildlife would be devastating. I can only hope the profits from the proposed geothermal plants actually will go to saving the Salton Sea.

    • Jasmyn, I agree!
      I think that tapping the geothermal juice under the (entire) area is probably the only way to generate enough jobs and revenue to keep it alive.

      • We hope that Geothermal Industry will help generate some money to the restoration.Hope its not another empty promise as has been the case by other industry when building in Imperial County and then leaving us in worst shape

  2. It’s just frustrating. Thankfully we have this outgoing guy Kerry right now getting the word out more. I too have photographing evidence of its rapid evaporation. I love the sea to pieces and love to Kayak and swim in the Salton Sea.

  3. somewhere i read that one of the things they were thinking of doing was making a canal to the sea of cortez and tapping into that source for some water have u heard of this?

    • I am meeting with one of the biggest proponents of this plane, Kerry Morrison on Thursday!
      Unfortunately, this plan is very costly, and currently nobody wants to pay for it.

      • What a great article. Maybe we should start getting those rich golfers and Hollywood stars to start pitching in since they wont be able to golf in Palm Springs anymore or take their vacations…Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again so maybe someone should ask him if he plans to fix the Salton Sea since its a part of America? I am currently sitting in a stink bomb in Palm Springs right now courtesy of the Salton Sea 🙂 Its the most disgusting smell and it doesn’t just go away. This summer it has gotten worse. I’m moving next month I cannot stand it anymore. If they don’t clean this up people are going to start suing the government from getting sick…like the 3 children that died in the past 3 years in imperial Co. that should have sued due to the air pollution. Only then will the government take care of this. Personally I am pissed at my government for allowing this situation to get out of hand. I’m disgusted with California politicians that don’t care about this.I say we start hanging out at golf courses with cash cans and start making the rich golfers put money in them and build the funds ourselves because our government does not care and will never do anything in till its too late. Our government should be looking into the river stomach farming system. If no one knows what it is do a search on it…Its really brilliant.

  4. Sorry folks none of your loving thoughts, (and I have many outstanding memories of our inland sea and ski races across it ) are going to fix this. I truly feel it might be in the interest of the people that live their against heat, wind and drying up sea to decide its final out come! Fixing it , Ain’t gonna happen! No matter what anybody says, I’m sorry don’t think it’s coming back! To all of you that have hung out there for all these years, restaurants, bars, boat ,fishing joints, mechanics, and land sale folks???? Good Luck and thanks.

  5. Need to find a way to save!

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