What is the Salton Sea?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The Salton Sea is a large body of water (a saline lake) in southern California, falling within both Riverside County and Imperial County. It is located at the base of the Salton Sink, which has an extremely low elevation of 220 ft (65 m) below sea level. In comparison, the lowest elevation point on Earth not covered by water or ice is the shores the Dead Sea, which are at 1,391 ft (424 m) below sea level.

The Salton Sea is in Southern California.
The Salton Sea is in Southern California.

The Salton Sea of today was created during a man-made environmental disaster which occurred between the years of 1905 and 1907. During this time, there were massive efforts underway to bring water for agricultural irrigation from the nearby Colorado River to the below-sea-level Imperial Valley. The Imperial Canal was created to this end. Eventually, the canal was blocked by silt from the Colorado River, and a diversion channel was created through Mexican territory.

This diversion channel crossed an unstable river delta which was susceptible to being reshaped during floods. In 1905, massive flooding caused the diversion channel to overflow its boundaries, resulting in water pouring downhill into the previously-dry Salton Sink. Flowing at 150,000 cubic feet per second, a new freshwater lake was created.

Cutback erosion caused the channel to backtrack all the way to the river intake, ultimately creating a waterfall over 100 feet in height. Scientists worried that if the cutback absorbed the flow of the river itself, it could cause it to be permanently rerouted into the Salton Sink, flooding the entire Imperial Valley. Under intense government pressure, the Southern Pacific Railroad spent 3 million dollars to stop the river’s flow into the Salton Sink. The river was successfully diverted back to its natural course into the Gulf of California. One of the major motivations for creating the Hoover Dam was to prevent flooding on the Colorado River to avert such potential disasters in the future. The Salton Sea is one of the largest artificially-created lakes in the world, and certainly the largest created by accident.

Today, the Salton Sea is a 376 sq mi (974 sq km) body of water replenished by agricultural runoff. The nutrient-rich agricultural runoff has contributed to algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels, causing it to be one of the most polluted and stagnant bodies of water in the United States. The lowered oxygen levels resulting from the algal blooms regularly kill off hundreds of thousands of fish, which pile up on the shores.

Today, the only fish that can survive the extremely salty water are the hardy tilapia. Although the Salton Sea was used as a recreational area from the 1920s to the 1950s, these days are long gone. The Salton Sea is now largely abandoned. Various plans have been discussed to save the Salton Sea, such as constructing a canal from the Gulf of California to let in lower-salinity water, but none has yet been put into action, as various political and logistical factors have thus far been prohibitive.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@cellmania: I agree. My family and I were there two years ago and had a great time. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area offers 1400 campsites in five different campgrounds. There are hundreds of picnic sites.

We enjoyed the trails and the kids loved the playgrounds. There is also a boat ramp and it is definitely open to tourists for a great vacation.


I appreciate the fact that you provided information about the Salton Sea but I don't think you did it any justice.

Had I not recently visited the Salton Sea, I would have thought of it in comparison to a dungeon from reading this article.

It is still a beautiful place. It is still open to the public and several million birds migrate there every year.

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