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Through History, Change Has Ruled
The Salton Sea

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

Through the centuries, change has been the only constant for lakes that sprang up in the Salton Sink, the subsea level depression in the north end of the Imperial Valley where today's sea sits.

In ancient times, hundreds of lakes, including four in the past 2,000 years, have occupied the Salton Sink. The last one was called Lake Cahuilla, after local Indians, and was more than twice the size of the modern Salton Sea.

In the days before the mighty dams, the Colorado River behaved like a loose garden hose turned on full blast, flipping some years to fill the Salton Sink and flopping other years to create marshland called Laguna Salada across the border in Mexico.


Salton content in water (ppm=parts salt per million parts water)

0 ppm

    Salton Sea -- 45,000 ppm

  Pacific Ocean -- 35,000 ppm

Great Salt Lake 

Dead Sea

Mono Lake -- 100,000 ppm

230,000 ppm

320,000 ppm

Colorado River at Imperial Dam -- 757 ppm

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Metropolitan Water District, U.s. Geologic Survey, Imperial Irrigation District

Prehistoric lakes were created, cut off from the river, grew saltier and evaporated under relentless desert sun, rejuvenated only when the river came back and started the whole process over, explained Michael McKibben, geologist at the University of California, riverside, who has studied layers of soil under the Salton Sea.

The Salton sea has been changing ever since it was created in 1905. At that time, the sea's water was so fresh it contained mullet, trout, catfish and other freshwater fish. Butrising salinity long ago wiped them out. Mullet Island at the south shore is a lonely testament to the sea's dynamic nature.

"It's a natural cycle of that sea. The Salton Sea has never been a stable place." McKibben said. "It's always been filling up or evaporating... One could say in a philosophical sense you're fighting nature.