Road Trip: Salton Sea

SaltonBleedingGold_CheersSusanIt has taken me a long time to find the words for this post and even as as sit down to write this I’m still not sure if I have the strength. For I feel very much like the girl in the image above. There is a whole in my heart due to the lose of Abby. This trip to the Salton Sea was pretty much the last trip we took together and it will forever hold a place in my heart and this image will always be a representation  of our time. But more on Abby later. For now, the conundrum that is the Salton Sea.


The Salton Sea is a…strange place. It’s a place I had heard about and read about. It intrigued me. More out of curiosity and less out of some burning desire to wander off into the desert to explore some rotten fish smelling body of water. I was curious as to how this place came to be, how it still exists, why it still exists, what the future holds for it, for us, and for the people who call this place home. Also, for the graffiti. I sort of have a bit of a love affair with graffiti. I’m not sure what it is about it that I like. That I’m still figuring out. But it speaks to me. It draws me in. It holds my attention. It has soul.




The Salton Sea is one of the world’s largest inland sea and is 227 feet below sea level. How did it come into existence you ask? In 1905, the Colorado River flooded, crashing the canal gates and flooding the Imperial Valley for 18 months before it could be fixed, thus the Salton Sea was accidentally created. The in the 1950’s it briefly became a resort area. Yep, a resort. Maybe not a full blown fancy smancy resort, but it tried. Roads were planned and some were put in, housing developments were started and never fully finished, palm trees were planted along roads and then left behind, community centers and marinas were built and have now been abandoned, some of the homes have been deserted and left to be scavenged, graffiti-ed, and slowly crumble. Why did this happen? One reason might be…



Okay, it’s highly unlikely that it was due to the fish die off. The die offs didn’t start until the mid-1990’s. Tilapia, pictured above, were introduced into the Salton Sea in the 1950’s along with a variety of other fish species. The only species to survive were the Tilapia. Not only did they survive but they thrived until 1996 when they mysteriously started to die off turning the beaches into a bone yards. You literally walk on fish bones. Millions upon millions of tiny bones. In 1999, the die off was estimated at 7.6 million fish. Can you imagine the smell? Trust me when I say the smell got to me a time or two and I almost puked. And I wasn’t there in the heat of the summer. Yuck! Not only have the fish continued to die but so have birds which opens up a whole host of interconnected questions between desert environments, agriculture, and wildlife. But more on that later.



Near the southern edge of the Salton Sea you can find the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, Sonny, as in Sonny and Cher. Not only was he a singer but he was the mayor of Palm Springs in the late ’80’s, and a member of Congress, until his death. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (that’s a name!) is located within what is referred to as the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. It’s an important migratory route which then leads to a lot of questions in regards to the state of the Salton Sea and it’s future along with the future of migratory birds here in the west. Yep, more questions are floating around my head. Trouble!


Now, you might be wondering, like me, what’s causing these die offs. I wish there was one super easy answer but there isn’t. There never is. You see, the Salton Sea get saltier and saltier every year which is causing problems. It’s also very polluted thanks to agricultural runoff. The only water that’s currently going into the Salton Sea is water from farming in the Imperial Valley and this water is not being treated. So all of the pesticides are going down stream and into the Salton Sea. The Imperial Valley produces over $1 billion dollars worth of food each year which is rather astounding given the fact that the area usually only received about 2.5″ of rainfall per year. Last time I checked, crops need water. A lot of water at that. Especially when the average summer temps are around 100 degrees.

Where does the water come from? The Colorado River. The water is rich in selenium and the surrounding soil is rich in salt. So, when the crops are irrigated, and the water evaporates, it leaves behind high concentrations of these two substances which start to kill off plant roots. Farmers then flush their fields with more water than their plants need. This drives the pollutants, along with pesticides, down into the underground water system and out into the Salton Sea.


As you can see. It doesn’t make for lovely swimming conditions. Instead, you gag over the smell of the rotting fish while listening to the sea quietly bubble away like Shakespeare’s witch’s cauldron. Yuck!

So, with this seared into our minds, we push on to Bombay Beach on the Eastern Side of the Salton Sea in hopes of catching the sunset before returning home.









We managed to catch the sunset and it was breathtaking in more ways than one. As the last rays faded and we loaded back up into the car for the drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder what will become of this place in the next 20 to 50 years. Will we continue to pursue agricultural enterprises in the desert? Will the Salton Sea continue and if it does, to what ends? Will the Talapia survive? Will the birds continue to use it as a migratory stop? Will we continue to poison them and ourselves? Have we done enough damage to this area that we can now start to course correct and fix what we have done?

Where do we go from here?




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