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The Salton Sea: Once a Vacation Spot, Now an Ecological Nightmare

Southern California’s Salton Sea has been neglected for decades, but there’s reason to hope for its restoration.

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The combination of sea, mountains and desert, plus the constant sunshine, makes this lush area a playland the year round.” So intones the narrator of a 1958 promotional film extolling the virtues of California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, 150 miles east of Los Angeles. The pitch was aimed at potential investors and homesteaders eager to leave the crowded and expensive city behind. This was going to be the next Palm Springs, but with water.

And for a while it was. People flocked to the area in the ’50s and ’60s to sunbathe, swim and waterski. Anglers enjoyed “the fishing capital of the world” and speedboat racers took advantage of “the fastest water on earth.” Homes, schools and yacht clubs sprouted up. 

It was a far cry from the turn of the 20th century, when the area was known as the Salton Sink because it acted as a catch basin for an ever-changing and overflowing Colorado River. In 1905, however, an engineering mistake diverted the river into the dry basin. For the next 18 months, it continued to flow, growing into California’s newest and biggest body of water. The lake should have evaporated once the river was no longer flowing into it, but agricultural runoff replenished what was lost to the desert sun. 

The 1950s promise of a desert utopia attracted thousands of tourists and residents. But by the 1970s, things began to go terribly wrong. Floods destroyed homes and businesses along the shore. The uncirculated water became saltier than the ocean. And periodic algae blooms began killing off millions of fish, their rotting carcasses making the air almost unbreathable.  

Today, the Salton Sea is an ecological nightmare. Fish are still dying off in huge numbers. The landscape is littered with desolate structures. And years of drought have led to a rapid shrinking of the sea, which poses risks for humans. Exposed toxic pollutants from agricultural runoff, among other things, are picked up by the wind and carried hundreds of miles. Children in the immediate area already have the state’s highest asthma levels. 

As the water level recedes, millions of migratory birds are also threatened. Even though people largely abandoned the Salton Sea, birds never did. Recognized as one of the best places in the world for ornithologists, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is a major resting place and wintering area for migrating birds. 

After years of studies, announcements and promises, efforts to restore the long-neglected Salton Sea are finally gaining traction. In November, California residents approved a $7.5 billion state water bond. About $500 million will go to restoration projects, including the Salton Sea. And federal plans aimed at restoring the habitat were approved last fall.

The Salton Sea will probably never be returned to what it was 65 years ago. Restoration cost estimates climb into the billions of dollars. Still, it could cost even more to do nothing. As the land-sale huckster from the 1958 promotional film ended his pitch: “The future is now.” 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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