Salton Sea

views updated May 23 2018


SALTON SEA. Originally named Lake Cahuila after the Indians living in the area, the Salton Sea was first called the Salton Sink in 1892. Located in Imperial County in southeastern California, the ancient lake bed would fill with water during rare rainstorms. The water would then evaporate, leaving pools and salt beds. In 1900, the California Development Company began diverting Colorado River water to the Imperial Valley through the Imperial Canal, a channel dug without adequate safeguards in case of flood. The company intended the water for the farmers buying its land. A series of floods from 1905 to 1907 caused the Colorado River to leave its course, break through the inadequate headgate, and head for the lowest point. Soon the sink became the Salton Sea. The Southern Pacific Railroad and the federal government spent millions of dollars to dam the diversion and return the river to its proper channel. By then the Salton Sea had expanded to some thirty-five miles in length and up to fifteen miles in width, with an average depth of some 230 feet below sea level.

During the twentieth century, as agricultural activity in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys expanded, so did use of Colorado River water. The All-American Canal, completed in 1941, provided water through a route that was entirely in the United States, unlike the earlier Imperial Canal that ran through Mexico. Agricultural development transformed the region from arid desert into fertile farmland, and one of the most productive areas in the world. However, runoff from irrigation ditches, carrying pesticides and other chemicals, led to the Salton Sea, increasing its salinity and polluting its water. Real estate promoters attempting to create a "Salton Riviera" in the 1960s failed, leaving abandoned lots and boarded-up buildings along the shore. In recent years there have been episodes of massive die-offs of fish and birds. The late Congressman Sonny Bono introduced legislation to restore the Salton Sea, but estimates to repair the ecological damage run as high as $500 million.


De Buys, William E. Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999.

Fradkin, Philip L. A River No More: The Colorado River and the West. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Hundley, Norris. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.