What’s Salton Sea?

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The Salton Sea is a large, man-made, and highly polluted lake in Southern California created by an environmental disaster in 1905. It was formed when a diversion channel overflowed and flooded the previously dry Salton Sink. The lake is now largely abandoned and various plans to save it have been proposed but not yet implemented.

The Salton Sea is a large body of water (a saline lake) in Southern California that falls under both Riverside County and Imperial County. It sits at the base of Salton Sink, which has an extremely low elevation of 220 feet (65m) below sea level. By comparison, the lowest point of elevation on Earth not covered by water or ice is the shores of the Dead Sea, which are 1,391 feet (424 m) below sea level.

Today’s Salton Sea was created during a man-made environmental disaster that occurred between the years 1905 and 1907. During this time, enormous efforts were underway to bring water for agricultural irrigation from the nearby Colorado River at the submarine-level Imperial Valley. The Imperial Canal was created for this purpose. Eventually, the channel was blocked by silt from the Colorado River and a diversion channel was created through Mexican territory.

This diversion channel crossed an unstable river delta which was susceptible to being reshaped during floods. In 1905, a massive flood caused the diversion channel to overflow its boundaries, causing water to rush downstream into the previously dry Salton Sink. With a flow of 150,000 cubic feet per second, a new freshwater lake was created.

Shear erosion caused the channel to backtrack all the way to the river intake, eventually creating a waterfall over 100 feet high. Scientists feared that if the cut absorbed the flow of the river itself, it could cause it to divert permanently into Salton Sink, flooding the entire Imperial Valley. Under intense government pressure, the Southern Pacific Railroad spent $3 million to stop the river’s flow into the Salton Sink. The river has been successfully diverted into its natural course in the Gulf of California. A major motivation for creating the Hoover Dam was to prevent flooding on the Colorado River to avoid potential disasters in the future. The Salton Sea is one of the largest artificially created lakes in the world and certainly the largest created by accident.

Today, the Salton Sea is a 376 square mile (974 square km) body of water replenished by agricultural runoff. Nutrient-rich agricultural runoff has contributed to algae blooms and high levels of bacteria, making it one of the most polluted and stagnant bodies of water in the United States. Low oxygen levels resulting from algal blooms regularly kill hundreds of thousands of fish that accumulate on shores.

Today, the only fish that can survive extremely salty water is the hardy tilapia. Although the Salton Sea was used as a recreation area from the 1920s to the 1950s, these days are long gone. The Salton Sea is now largely abandoned. Various plans to save the Salton Sea, such as building a canal from the Gulf of California to bring in low-salinity water, have been mooted, but none have yet been put into action, as various political and logistical factors have so far been prohibitive.

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