The Salton Sea is California's largest lake. Like much of the state's landscape, it's dramatic and outrageously picturesque. Unlike other lakes like Tahoe and Arrowhead, however, the huge body of water has a very strange history.
In 1901, the California Development Company dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. The water flow was inhibited by silt, so engineers cut a hole in the western bank to allow more water to get through. Unfortunately, in 1905, heavy flood waters burst the banks, dumping almost the entire river flow into the valley.
By the time the levees had been closed off again almost two years later, a huge lake was formed, measuring over 400 square miles. Over the years, instead of evaporating, it stayed, topped off by agricultural run-off. Sport fishing was promoted, cormorants and pelicans moved in, and in 1930 it became a wildlife refuge (though this didn't stop the army from dropping dummy bombs into it in World War Two).
In 1955, Salton Sea became a State Park, but scientists noticed that the water was stagnating and salinity levels were rising. Thirty years later, people were warned to limit their consumption of fish from the lake, due to selenium threats. In the Seventies two major tropical storms swept through the region, flooding resorts which had begun growing around its perimeters. In 1992, 150,000 grebes died on the Sea, then in 1996, over a thousand pelicans succumbed to botulism. In 1999, 7.6 million tilapia and croakers washed ashore, dead due to lack of oxygen (caused by excessive algae).
Visit the lake today and you'll occasionally see strangely-colored water, created by chemical reactions and causing massive fish die-offs. These dead fish then litter its shores, with accompanying putrid smells. According to the Salton Sea Authority, 'Now at 44 parts per thousand, or at a content level 25% greater than the ocean, the hypersaline environment is jeopardizing the survival of fish and will ultimately jeopardize the survival of much of the Sea's biological bounty.' Work is underway to reverse this trend, but until then Salton Sea remains a curious accidental phenomenon, at once beautiful and eerie. RM