Soaking in the Salton Sea

California’s largest manmade lake, which supports an amazing array of birdlife, has a quirky allure (slideshow)

I eased my kayak off the briny shoreline separating flocks of American avocets and western sandpipers wading and feeding hurriedly in the shallows. The salty, buoyant water was silky smooth as my kayak glided southbound toward an apocalyptic desertscape of extinct volcanoes and steamy plumes spewing from boiling mud pots. 

For nine miles I followed the V-formations of migratory American white pelicans and a flock of low-flying double-crested cormorants, their wings humming in rapid flight just above the surface of the water. I reveled in the cacophony of birdlife and the geological wonders that loomed around this arid inland sea, the wake of my kayak the only blemish on the tranquil waters.

photo of kayakers on a still body of water near a large flock of wading birdsall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more as a slideshow of the Salton Sea.

Over the years the Salton Sea has transformed from a resort-like destination of the 1940s to 1960s, to an environmental conundrum. This inland saline lake in the southeast corner of the Golden State was formed between 1905 and 1907, when the Colorado River swelled and breached poorly-built levees and dikes flooding surrounding agricultural fields and what was then the Salton Sink. Almost the entire flow of the Colorado filled the Salton Basin (a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla that’s some 230 feet below sea level) for more than a year, inundating communities, farms, and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Eventually the floodwaters created an inland oasis about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide, covering an area of about 400 square miles. Dubbed Salton Sea, the lake became a popular hangout for Hollywood celebs like the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and Frank Sinatra and was on the verge of becoming “the next Las Vegas”. Raucous crowds would line the shorelines and jetties to watch the bevy of speedboats, waterskiing jumps, and fishing tournaments on what became the largest manmade lake in California. There was a time when 400,000 boats used the manmade sea each year, and more people visited the lake than Yosemite National Park. Seaside towns like Bombay Beach and Desert Shores rose from the desert floor, and in 1959 the Salton Sea Yacht Club was built, the place to be for many seaside desert bashes.

But since then the Salton Sea endured more flooding, which thwarted further residential development. Eventually the 110 miles of craggy shoreline lost its luster, that resort-like atmosphere vanished like a dust devil in a stiff, dry wind. Many of the settlements were eventually abandoned, mostly due to the increasing salinity and pollution of the lake over the years from agricultural runoff and other sources. In the 1970s, and the combination of rapidly receding waters, algal blooms, and increased salinity levels induced mass die-offs of fish and birds, especially during the summer months when temperatures consistently reach over 100 degrees. The smell of the increasingly saline waters and the stench of the dead fish also killed off most of the once-thriving tourist industry around the Salton Sea.

The tilapia has proven to be the most resilient fish here, the only species capable of surviving in waters 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Because there are no outlets for the water, the shrinking size of the lake – which is still fed by the Alamo, Whitewater, and New rivers and several creeks and drainage systems – has become a cause for concern. The lake’s water level is expected to decrease significantly over the next five years due to changes in water sharing agreements for the Colorado River under the Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003. Environmentalists fear the Salton Sea and all the bird life that flocks to it will probably perish if there isn’t enough inflow of water into the lake. 

Yet, despite its ecological quagmire this manmade mistake in the middle of the Sonoran Desert holds a certain breathtaking, even quirky allure. In recent years, the lake has regained some popularity as a recreation spot for water sports, fishing, and bird-watching. More than 150,000 people visit the Salton Sea recreation area each year, and visitation is on the rise.

During the winter months the serenity of the Salton Sea and surrounding desert can be mesmerizing. With the daunting Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains to the west and the Chocolate Mountains to the east, paddling on the lake at sunrise and sunset is sheer bliss. The birdlife on and around the Salton Sea, which sits smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, is prolific. It’s one of the best places in North America to go birding, with over 400 species of shorebirds, land birds, and waterfowl documented, including many migratory species, which overwinter on the Sea’s tranquil shores. Eighty percent of the American white pelican population, for instance, winters on the Salton Sea, filling the skies and plunging for food along deserted shorelines best explored by kayak.

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