Situated in the Sonoran Desert in southeastern California is the Salton Sea, the largest lake in the state. The Salton Basin has held various waters over the last three million years as the Colorado River changed its course and spilled over, filling up the basin with fresh water lakes that would eventually evaporate. Then, the process would start all over again.
One of these long ago lakes in known history was Lake Cahuilla which formed around 700 A.D. and was utilized extensively by the Cahuilla and the Kumeyaay Indians for fresh water fishing, bird hunting, and marsh plants. The ancient lake continued to occupy the basin off and on until about three centuries ago.
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 Basin.
In the late 19th century the California Development Company 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 California Development Company 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.
However, in the early 1950s, certain species survived including gulf croaker, sargo, orange corvine and tilapia. As the fish began to thrive, it fueled a recreation boom in the 1950s and the inland desert sea became an inviting sport-fishing and vacation destination. In no time, its coastline developed numerous resorts and marinas catering to water skiers, boaters, and fishermen. Billed as “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea,” restaurants, shops, and nightclubs also sprang up along the shores. The lake enjoyed immense popularity, especially among the rich and famous as movie stars and recording artists flocked to the area. From Dean Martin, to Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys, the lake became a speedboat playground.
However, Salton Sea’s bright lights would quickly fade in the 1970s when the sea’s water level began rising from several years of heavy rains and increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, businesses, resorts, and marinas flooded several times until the water stabilized in 1980 after a series of conservation measures to reduce field run-off. However, for the many resort areas, it was too late. The salt and fertilizers of the run-off had accumulated to such a degree that they had reached toxic levels, which began a cycle of decay. As algae fed on the toxins, it created massive amounts of rotten smelling matter floating upon the surface of the lake and suffocated many of the fish.
Within just a few years, the resorts had closed, the marinas were abandoned, and those who could afford to, had moved, leaving in their wake, abandoned businesses and homes, and scattered junk.
Today, Salton Sea continues to maintain itself, fed by the Alamo, Whitewater, and New Rivers, as well as continued agricultural runoff from irrigated farmland. Covering an average surface area of about 375 miles, it is the largest lake in California.
But, still the lake is in trouble. The salt in the Salton Sea is higher than that of the Pacific Ocean and numerous restoration plans have been developed over the years, the latest of which proposes to reduce the size of the lake to make it more manageable at a cost of billions of dollars and more than two decades to complete.
The lake is dotted with “signs” of more prosperous times and the area is much like a “ghost lake,” surrounded by small “ghost towns,” “ghost resorts,” and “ghost trailer parks.”
Bombay Beach – Located on the east shore of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach was first developed by R.E. Gilliagan in October, 1929 as a private community that quickly grew with weekend visitors and retirees. By the 1960s, the town sported numerous businesses and homes. However, the next decade would take its toll on the community as tropical storms and flooding destroyed parts of the town. Though this permanently affected Bombay’s development, the small town still supports about 350 people and a few open businesses amongst a sunken trailer park and abandoned buildings. A dike now protects the west portion of of the small community that is located just south of the Salton Sea State Park. It is one of the lowest elevation communities in the U.S. sitting about 225 feet below sea level.
Desert Shores – This small community still supports more than 1000 people and has actually grown over the last several years. However, signs of its resort community heydays can still be seen a few abandoned businesses and fading billboards. One of the many communities that developed during the sea’s heydays in the 1950’s, the city was bustling in the 1960s with the Desert Shores Yacht Club, Marina Mobile Estates, a five-fingered marina, a fishing barge just offshore, and numerous businesses. However, in the 1970s the town was battered by a couple of tropical storms and the rising sea level flooded many of the shoreline resorts and homes. Desert Shores is located just north of Salton Sea Beach on the west side of the sea east of SH 86.