Up The Road: The Salton Sea

Feb 7, 2018

Credit Christopher Browns

We head up the road this week to the Salton Sea in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. Most people don’t make it much beyond the population centers—Palm Springs with its swimming pools, mid-century modern architecture, and groovy antique shops; luxury golf courses valley-wide, gushing with greens and water fountains; upmarket shopping in Palm Desert; and classic resorts such as Spanish-style La Quinta, near Indio, where Frank Capra of It’s A Wonderful Life fame, retreated to write that equally rad 1935 rom com It Happened One Night.

On the way to the Salton Sea—and, if possible, also on the way back—stop at funky Shields Date Gardens just for the date milkshakes, truly a wonder food. Some 90 percent of the dates we eat grow in the Coachella Valley. Also grab a copy of the Shields’ 1950s’ slide-show DVD, The Romance and Sex Life of the Date. Short version of this lurid tale: dates do it with a little help from their friends.

But I digress. We’re talking about the Salton Sea, which sorely needs our attention, and will finally get some on June’s statewide ballot as Proposition 68, which includes $200 million earmarked for lake restoration—not nearly enough, but a start.

Credit Kevin Dooley

From a distance, the Salton Sea looks like a massive desert mirage. But this very salty inland sea is quite real—California’s largest body of water, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, twice the size of Lake Tahoe. It was created by accident in 1905, when the Colorado River flooded and a levee gave way. (Greed was the actual cause. Engineers working to divert Colorado River water decided to siphon off some of Mexico’s share while they were at it. Their unauthorized engineering caused the breech, and rampaging river water poured north—an 18-month torrent.) Overnight California’s newest lake became its largest.

But go back a bit further, and the lake was already here. We know its ancient predecessor as Lake Cahuilla, at one time an extension of the Gulf of California—which explains the crunchy seashells underfoot rather than beach sand. Still, “ancient” isn’t entirely accurate. In wet years Lake Cahuilla was even larger than today’s Salton Sea, and it persisted until about 500 years ago.

Starting in the 1920s the Salton Sea was an immensely popular recreation area, attracting a half million visitors each year for sportfishing and water fun—celebrity speedboats, anyone? The shorter half of Sonny and Cher, the late U.S. Congressman Sonny Bono, water-skied here as a teenager, so it’s only fitting that much of the area is now the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Even in the 1970s the water was fresh enough to support rainbow trout. Naturally enough, the lake became a stopover for more than 4 million birds on the Pacific Flyway, representing nearly 400 bird species, an invaluable ecological add-on making up for wetlands loss elsewhere. Winter birding can be grand.

These days, though, the Salton Sea is 50 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean and becoming saltier all the time, due to irrigation runoff. And such salty, nutrient-rich water has become a turnoff for visitors, not to mention a toxic danger to birds, fish, and wildlife. Monumental fish die-offs cause a stench they don’t enjoy in Los Angeles or Mexicali. Toxins released by the drying lake—Colorado River water once used for irrigation is now going to San Diego—have become a breathing hazard for small children and the elderly.

So check it out yourself. It’s time to save the Salton Sea, if we’re going to do it.