Salton Sea: The Rise And Fall Of A Toxic California Lake

Published October 24, 2021
Updated November 16, 2021

The Salton Sea was once a popular southern California tourist attraction, but over the years the lake has been abandoned as waters grow increasingly toxic.

The California drought has diminished much of the state’s lakes, rivers, and streams, but the rise and demise of the Salton Sea occurred on a different timeline. Though the man-made lake was once one of California’s most popular water resorts, the sea is now dried up, abandoned, and nearly forgotten.

Here’s what happened.

Salton Sea

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when water from the Colorado River spilled out of a poorly-constructed California Development Company irrigation system. The lake grew over the next two years until workers were able to staunch the massive flow.

By this time, a 400-square-mile body of water had formed on the Salton basin in southern California. They called it the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea History

Dying Fish

For the past 100 years, the Salton Sea has been referred to as an endorheic lake, meaning that its waters never discharge to the ocean; they either seep into the ground or evaporate. This condition has resulted in water with an extremely high salinity level — more than that of the Pacific Ocean — that continues to rise with time.

Boat Racing

In the 1950s and 60s, salination levels were lower, and the Salton Sea was a popular tourist hotspot. Millions of visitors would flock to the sea’s relatively warm waters each year — often drawing more tourists annually than Yosemite.

Nearby towns like Niland and Salton City welcomed guests, who frolicked along the warm beaches and enjoyed the Salton Sea’s reputation as a beautiful oasis.

Yet the popularity of this man-made California lake was short-lived. By the 1970s, rising salinity, shoreline flooding, and fertilizer runoff from nearby farmers created unsafe algal blooms which gave rise to elevated bacterial levels.

The chemical shift in the water caused a number of environmental problems, including the startling die-off of fish and bird populations. So many fish died that in some places the once-sandy beaches of Salton Sea are now large expanses of fish bones.

Bone Sand at Salty Lake

Once the fish began dying, the birds followed suit. In one day, a reported 640 birds were found dead. The cause was avian botulism, a disease that had been passed to them by the infected, dying fish.

As environmental troubles like these became more frequent, fewer visitors made it out to the shrinking lake.

Abandoned Salton Sea

While some people still live in the areas surrounding the Salton Sea, what’s left today is a mere shadow of the lake in its golden age. In 1990, California state officials considered a plan to revitalize the area, but little has come of it.

Aerial View of Salton Sea

Now, the salty, abandoned lake is little more than a memory.

After learning about the history of the Salton Sea, go inside California’s anarchistic community known as Slab City.

Kiri Picone
Bay Area transplant Kiri Picone is a writer and marketer who loves bizarre news and the color purple.