Visiting Southern California’s Salton Sea

By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
Environmental Columnist

 

Courtesy of viewlinerltd.blogspot.com

Courtesy of viewlinerltd.blogspot.com

What is the largest lake in California? Ask a Californian this question, and they will probably guess Lake Tahoe. Huge, clear, blue, majestic and surrounded by towering mountains, Lake Tahoe is an iconic symbol of California. However, this guess is actually wrong. The largest inland body of water is not in the high Sierra, but down in the desert of Southern California, just two hours east of Claremont. It is called the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea wasn’t always so unknown. In the early 20th century, the lake was formed as the result of a botched attempt to divert water from the Colorado River to desert farmland in the Imperial Valley. However, rather than viewing the accidentally flooded valley as an environmental disaster, real estate investors saw it as a blessing in disguise. Plans for lavish resorts and celebrity homes were drafted, and developments went up around the rim of the newly formed desert sea. For a short while, it was considered a vacation hotspot where people would go for sun, fishing and water sports. However, the lake’s increasing salinity combined with chemical runoff from farmland and factories has led to periodic changes in the lake’s composition, such as massive algae blooms or the cyclical extinction of the lake’s fish. Due to these changes, the lake’s economic boom was short-lived. Today, the Salton Sea draws few visitors.

However, the Salton Sea offers an incredible opportunity for scientists and artists alike to explore what an ecosystem and community turns into post-human intervention. The area around the Salton Sea has a post-apocalyptic quality. The sea rests on the San Andreas Fault, and mud volcanoes pepper the desert surrounding the lake. Derelict buildings crumble on the shores in communities with names like “Salton City” and “Bombay Beach,” suggestive of a more prosperous, hopeful era. Empty swimming pools fill with sand, and the beaches around the lake are covered with the bones of millions of dead fish. Though it may sound depressing, the Salton Sea has a poetic quality that entices artists and scientists to explore its shores. Despite its apparent desolation, the lake actually has a vibrant ecosystem. Sea birds flock around its shores, and its extreme environment fosters the development of unique and genetically resilient organisms, such as extremophiles, microorganisms that can withstand incredibly tough living conditions, including the inside of mud volcanoes.

The Salton Sea is a living paradox. It is a place where beauty meets desolation, and where the ghosts of a forgotten time meet vibrant life. For artists and scientists interested in the overlap of extinction and new life, and for anyone who appreciates an adventure in an unknown place, the Salton Sea is a little known wonder of Southern California that must be visited.