The Salton Sea

Salton Sea at Westshore

Salton Sea at Westshore

This week we begin to explore the southern California desert. Starting at the California border just west of Yuma, we head west along interstate 8. First we come to the Glamis area where miles of shifting sand dunes greet us. Glamis is a popular desert sport area where sand rails, dirt bikes, and quads run up and down the dunes. If the noise and crowds at Glamis become to much, you can always camp at campgrounds around the Salton Sea.

Next we come to the agricultural towns of Brawley, Westmoreland, and El Centro. The main town is El Centro but the farmers go to Brawley and Westmoreland for equipment parts and supplies. To the north of these towns is the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea definitely earns it’s name. With a salinity of 41 to 43 parts per thousand it is saltier than the Pacific which is only 35 parts per thousand. The present Salton Sea has been in existence for 100 years. Pollution, salinity and evaporation are major problems that the local, state, and federal governments are working hard to solve.

Ancient History

The Colorado river has overflowed repeatedly during the last 12,000 years into the below sea level Salton Sea basin. About 700 AD a large lake called Cahuilla was formed when the Colorado’s entrance to the Gulf of California became silted up. Lake Cahuilla was about 3 times the size of the present Salton Sea. The local Indians began farming along the lake. In 1500 AD a large flood of water from the Gulf of California turned the entire basin into a lake about 26 times the size of the present Salton Sea.  The high water line can still be seen on the nearby mountains. The water slowly evaporated and the lake disappeared completely by 1774.

Modern History

In 1825 moutain men like Kit Carson and Jebediah Smith arrived. In 1840 the New River formed and began creating small lakes in the basin during the rainy seasons. In 1853 it is proclaimed that the Imperial valley can be a garden spot if it is properly irrigated. Flooding in 1859, 1867, and 1891 form a 100,000 acre lake.

In 1901 the Imperial canal brings water to Imperial county. In 1904 the canal silted up and a temporary canal south of Yuma burst during heavy rains. The Colorado river changed course and rapidly began filling up the Salton Sea basin.  The canal breach was finally sealed. The water level in the newly formed Salton Sea was now -195 below Sea level.

In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge set asside the land under the Salton Sea as a permanent drainage basin.

In 1928 Boulder Dam and the all American canal are proposed to tame the Colorado river.

In 1942 the All American Canal opened. Salt levels in the Salton Sea began to rise because of agricultural runoff. In 1951 Orange mouth corvina and Sargo are intreoduced to the Salton Sea. In 1955 the Salton Sea Park opens. The water level is at -234 feet below sea level.

In 1976 and 1977 two hundred year storms bring the water level in the Salton Sea up to -195 below Sea level.

In 1985 the Salinity of the Salton Sea reached 40 parts per thousand. Fish began dying.

In 1992 150,000 eared grebbes die and bring nation attention to the problems of the Salton Sea.

In 1995 the salinity reaches 45 parts per thousand.

In 1997 Congressman Sonny Bono sets up a federal task force to find a solution. The Salton Sea wildlife preserve was named the Sonny Bono Wildlife preserve in memory of the late entertainer and congressman after his tragic death in 1998

In 2000 a pilot desalination plant begins operation.

Present Salt levels are at 41 to 43 parts per thousand and slowly going down. Whether government programs can permanently fix the problems of the Salton Sea remains to be seen.

The Plan

The Salton Sea Authority’s plan is to divide the Salton Sea in two. The upper part will be a viable lake and the lower part will be divided by a dyke and become a salt sink. Salt and Selenium are removed through processing and algae is removed to control the rotten egg smell. Presently 5 geothermal energy plants , Vulcan, CE Turbo, Hoch, Elmore, and Leathers provide 350 megawatts o the California grid. They also have a pilot zinc removal plant and have full salt and selenium plants planned. Imperial county is a leader in geothermal energy with 538 megawatts produced and 2563 megawatts of geothermal energy projected to be built in the future.