How Polluted Is Salton Sea?

Picture of ruins on the beach of Salton Sea

No trash for miles and not a dead fish in sight

What words come to mind when you think of Salton Sea?

If you’re like most people that know anything at all about Salton Sea, usually right after words like “hot” or “humid” will also be words like “smelly”, “dirty”, “gross”, or “disgusting”.  Cesspool or toilet may also come to mind.

My wife, who knows virtually nothing about Salton Sea wanted to know just how polluted Salton Sea is because a few of the people that she knows that have been there all tell her that it’s smelly, dirty, gross and disgusting.

It’s not. Mostly..

When I first visited Salton Sea in 1978, and for years after that, the shoreline of Salton Sea was littered with the trash of fishermen and boaters as well as bits and pieces of the resorts, camp grounds, trailer parks and residential areas that had been flooded in the preceding years.  Walking along the shoreline 35 years ago you had to maneuver through fishhooks, fishing line, beer cans, “pop tops” (for those of you old enough to know what those are), soda bottles (glass and plastic), window-frames, car parts, and just about anything else you can think of.  One time while walking along the shore south of Corvina Beach I found a complete rotary (dial) telephone!  I brought the phone home and was able to clean it up and return it to its (near perfect) former glory.

Salton Sea now

Visiting Salton Sea these days is almost nothing like the experience that it was 35 years ago.  On a recent 10-mile walk from North Shore to just beyond Corvina Beach, I counted only one water bottle and two large pieces of plastic trash, about the size of garbage bags – a total of 3 pieces of litter along 10 miles of shoreline!   This is probably because of the decrease in visitors, but clearly the people that do visit are being more responsible with their trash. The water in Salton Sea and the shoreline is virtually litter-free!

Swimming at Salton Sea

From 1978 to 1988 I swam in the lake hundreds of times, and accidentally swallowed gallons of the salty water with no ill effects.  In the late 1980’s the brine-shrimp overpopulation in summertime began to become noticeable.  After each swim our bodies were covered with a film of brine shrimp eggs or hatchlings – glistening in the sun as they wriggled all over our skin until they dried up and blew off.  Gross? Sure, but not harmful.

Part of my plan for walking the entire length of the shoreline in summertime includes taking a dip into the water to cool-down should I find myself feeling the effects of heat-stroke.  I was concerned that the years of agricultural run-off from the area and particularly from the New River would have made the water unsafe, but based on the (official) reports and state-mandated water quality testing, it is still perfectly safe to swim in.  This agricultural runoff and heavy metals that occur naturally all sink to the bottom and become trapped in the mud, only becoming hazardous if the mud is allowed to dry and turn into dust and you breath it in.

New River Pollution

Although still polluted, the type of pollution in the New River is mostly chemical, virtually all of it coming from farm runoff.  Long gone are the days of raw-sewage flowing from Mexico down the New River into Salton Sea.  Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, after a major storm, the main sewage treatment plant in Mexicali would overflow, sending tons of sewage into Salton Sea.  Even back then, most of the bad stuff in the sewage would die as soon as it hit the salt water in Salton Sea, so it posed no real risk to the fish or swimmers.  Mexicali upgraded that sewage plant years ago. The result? No sewage going into Salton Sea in over 20 years, contrary to popular misinformation you may have seen on the internet.

The Smell

There is no denying it.  On hot summer days, Salton Sea smells.

Picture of fish bones on the shore of Salton Sea

Dead fish decorate the shoreline

The smell at Salton Sea comes from the fish die-offs. Millions of fish die and wash up onto the shore and rot – and rotting fish stink.  Add 110°F temperatures and 90% humidity and you have the perfect recipe for stink-soup.

Another source of the aroma at Salton Sea is the hydrogen sulfide gas that brews in the mud at the bottom of the lake.  When the wind stirs up the water just right, it releases this gas resulting in a scent that smells like a cross between rotten eggs and sewage.  People will often incorrectly assume that this smell is due to sewage when in reality it’s just a byproduct of all the biological activity in the mud.

Salton Sea is actually pretty clean!

Even though there may not be much litter, and many people could consider Salton Sea “clean” in this respect, the dead fish along the shore and summertime smell can sometimes make it an unpleasant place to visit.  The fish bones and dead barnacles on the shoreline only add to the experience.  You either love it or you hate it.

Do you love Salton Sea, or do you hate it?


  1. I LOVE to HATE it! Gross!

  2. I LOVE LOVE it! It is an amazing place that I have been visiting since childhood. I see its beauty very easily.

  3. If The Salton Sea is permitted to dry up, there will be FROST in Brawley.
    Millions of birds on The Pacific Flyway will be stranded.
    Two Billion Tilapia will die.
    The Haboobs will destroy the three valleys.
    A great recreational spot will be ruined.
    Distill seawater from Baja & inject it into a new, healthy Sea.

  4. if the salton sea drys up in which I don,t believe it will it will take at least a hundred years or so, all the water from farm run offs and the new and Alamo running in the salton sea, what makes you think its drying up. after I left the base in 1975 the water raised enough to wipe out the pier and boathouse, it just needs to be cleaned up with filter systems,

    • Hi George!
      The problem, which a lot of people are not aware of is that all that farm run-off, which is really what has been sustaining the sea, will cease to flow into the Sea in 2017 as that water will be diverted to San Diego, and no water will be “permitted” to flow into Salton Sea.
      The IID estimates that by 2022, Salton Sea will be far less than half of it’s current size, roughly the size it was back around 1915-1920. They also predict that as you stated, it will never ‘dry up’, but will stay around that size of 1/3 it’s current size.. give or take..
      This will leave hundreds of square miles of exposed playa/dust to be blown into Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, the Inland Empire, and potentially Los Angeles county..

  5. Construct a pipeline and pumping stations and pump sea water into the Salton Sea! Yes it will cost a lot, but the cost of doing nothing is far more.

  6. I grew up going to Salton Sea as a kid and later on as an adult. Sure things have changed and the sea has a rotten smell from time to time but I still believe the sea is worth saving! Just think if the sea was fresh water. Wow! there would be no land available anywhere. It would be standing room only!! I think our government should do something to save the Salton Sea. A pipeline might be the answer, expensive yes but maybe worth it!!

  7. I don’t know🤔

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