By the time European explorers came to the area in the 16th
century, the Salton Basin was completely dry, though just a half a
century before it had been some 26 times larger than the size of the
current Salton Sea.
Over the decades, the lake continued to rise and fall until the last
large infilling occurred in the early 1700s. However, by the time Don
Juan Bautista de Anza led the first large European party through what
is now known as the Imperial Valley, the Salton Basin was a
salt-encrusted mud flat. In the 1800’s the
Colorado River flooded the basin several times creating a number of
lakes that came and went.
As early as 1815, salt mining began in the area and when the railroad
came through the basin, large scale salt mining started in 1884, and
the dry lakebed began to be referred to as Salton Sink or the Salton
In the late 19th century the
and its ambitious president, Charles R. Rockwood, determined to make
the Imperial Valley into an agricultural oasis in the desert. A series
of canals were constructed in 1900 to allow for irrigation and for a
few years the river flowed peacefully, regulated by a wooden head
gate, and watering the fields of fruits and vegetables. However, the
flowing waters contained large amounts of silt, which soon blocked the
head gate. To correct this problem, the
then cut a new channel a few miles south of the Mexican border.
Unregulated by U.S. authorities, the new channel crossed an unstable
river delta and when the Colorado River waters began to peak from
heavy rainfalls and snowmelt in the summer of 1905, the dike broke and
the Salton Basin began to fill at an alarming rate.
For two years, the
Colorado River flooded the Salton Sink, destroying the town of Salton
and the Southern Pacific Railroad siding. The railroad, having
substantial business interests in the region, spent some three million
dollars to stop the river's flow into the Salton Sink, finally
succeeding in 1907. However, a "new” lake body had been created, which
was called the Salton Sea.
The large sea, surrounded
by desert terrain, was a natural site for fishermen, but without an
outlet, the sea became more and more saline as fresh water was pumped out
of the lake for irrigation and when the water returned through run-off it
included dissolved salts from the soil, pesticides and fertilizer residue.
As the saline levels increased, the fresh water fish died and over the
years, officials began to experiment with bringing in various species of
salt water fish, including salmon, halibut, bonefish, clams, oysters, and
more. Unfortunately, these fish also died due to the high saline level.