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Salton Sea @ National Geographic Magazine

By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.Photographs by Gerd Ludwig

Celebrities used to trail their toes in the brine, but few people dare take a dip today. The good fortune of California's offbeat inland sea may finally be evaporating.

Read or print the full article.

If I didn't know better, this would seem the perfect place to toss a beer can, bury nuclear waste, or hop in a big monster truck and drive wherever the hell I want. I am standing 227 feet (69 meters) below sea level on the desert shore of California's largest lake and this country's strangest backwater: the Salton Sea. It's prettier from afar, a broad blue lens lapping at the base of rust red mountains. Up close the beach, if you can call it that, isn't sand but layer upon layer of barnacles and bones from the millions of fish that have expired here in mass die-offs over the years. The blue water is an illusion as well, a reflection of the desert sky. The sea actually looks like dark beer, and carries more than a whiff of sulfuric decay. Gobs of foam line the shore. Stringy mats of algae float in it as if it were some kid's science project gone horribly wrong.
Just the place for a swim.
It will be a ceremonial swim for me, my penance as a former resident of San Diego, 85 miles (137 kilometers) west of here. I figure I owe the Salton Sea that much, since it's mostly my beloved beach town that's begun to suck the lake dry. In 2003 a historic water deal transferred a huge gulp of Colorado River water from the farms of the Imperial Valley, which feed the Salton Sea, to the sprawling office parks and developments of the old mission town. The acrimonious water deal reaffirmed an old saying in these parts: In the West water flows uphill toward money. The transfer will cut inflows to the Salton Sea by 20 percent, water the shallow lake desperately needs to keep from shrinking into a hypersaline mud puddle, devoid of little more than microbial life.
So I will swim. But not here. Not now. When you go to dip your toe in the Salton Sea, it pays to be picky. I hop in my go-kart of a rental car, scratching gravel as I cruise past the withered palm trees of Salton City. I pass the Sidewinder Golf Course—no greens fees, no greens, just different grades of sand scraped together by enterprising retirees from a nearby RV park.
A few older men are finishing up on the nearest hole, and they raise tanned arms to wave. As I wave back, it hits me that the future of the Salton Sea hangs on two things: golf balls and pileworms. Golf balls, of course, being the target of that addictive game perfected by the Scots to torture retirees and line the pockets of real estate developers. Pileworms, of course, being the slimy strands of biomass no bigger than a golf tee that are the target of millions of fish and birds—some critically endangered—that have for decades viewed this giant stagnant pond as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Together, in the right mix, they could be the sea's salvation, creating a utopia where wildlife, fun-loving humans, and industrial agriculture peacefully coexist. But in this place of big schemes and broken dreams, I had to admit it was a long shot.

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Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting-room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of dead palm trees lining the Salton Sea's salty shores.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The Salton Sea is an accidental lake, created by human intervention in the early 1900s—or is it? That twist on the story is only partly true. One hint to the sea's long-term history is that it lies below sea level.
Millions of years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, the area of today's Salton Sea was salt water and formed the northern tip of the Gulf of California. The Colorado River emptied into the east side of the Salton Sink, a north-south rift valley formed by the pulling and separating action of a web of fault lines including the San Andreas Fault. Eventually the tons of silt carried by the Colorado created an alluvial plain that built up across the gulf and pinched off the northern end, creating a freshwater lake in what had been the tip of the Gulf of California.
Over millennia the watercourse of the Colorado River fluctuated, sometimes flowing south of the alluvial plain and straight into the Gulf of California, sometimes flowing north and replenishing the Salton Sink with fresh water. At its highest levels, water in the sink lay 44 feet (13 meters) above present lake levels. The waterline of what is referred to as Lake Cahuilla is still visible on the rocks around the Salton Sea. Yet often evaporation exceeded inflow and the entire area was dry.
In the early 1900s man meddled in nature's process and began to divert the waters of the Colorado for agricultural irrigation in the Imperial Valley, with runoff flowing into the Salton Sea. Shortly thereafter the canal breach occurred that led to the most recent incarnation of the Salton Sea. Due to the continual supply of agricultural water runoff, the Salton Sea finally has the potential to be permanent. Now California has to decide if the benefits of keeping the lake viable are worth the price.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
The Salton Sea Authority
This informative website addresses all of the issues surrounding the Salton Sea—the problems, the potential fixes, and who's involved in deciding what needs to be done.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
Explore the habitat, wildlife, and more of the Salton Sea.

Imperial Irrigation District
Learn more about the controversial water transfer agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego Water Authority, including links to the agreement documents, or find more information on how irrigation in the Imperial Valley works.

Imperial Sand Dunes
Find out about the history, recreation, events, and more at the Imperial Sand Dunes, including information about off-highway vehicle rules, regulations, and permits.

Bureau of Reclamation's Salton Sea Restoration Project Office
Check out this website for links and information on environmental and scientific issues regarding the Salton Sea and how they are being addressed by the many agencies involved in the cleanup efforts.

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Narrated by John Waters, this film highlights the history and current status of what used to be known as the "California Riviera.Find out about the history, recreation, events, and more at the Imperial Sand Dunes, including information about off-highway vehicle rules, regulations, and permits.


Common and Scientific Names of Fishes From the United States and Canada, 5th ed. American Fisheries Society, 1991.
deBuys, William. Salt Dreams. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
"Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Designation for the Peirson's Milk-Vetch." Prepared for the Division of Economics, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc., Cambridge, MA. March 26, 2004. Available online at
Elliott, Alan, and John Allan May. The Illustrated History of Golf. Gallery Books, 1990.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 3rd ed. National Geographic Society, 1999.
Jeffery, Clara. "Go West, Old Man." Harper's Magazine (November 2002).
"Salton Sea: California's Overlooked Treasure." The Periscope. Coachella Valley Historical Society, reprinted 1999.
"The Dirtiest River." Transcript from 60 Minutes, Sunday, December 28, 1986.
Wright, Karen. "Can This Sea Be Saved?" Discover (November 2000).


NGS Resources
Uhlman, Jerry. "The Plight of the Salton Sea." National Geographic Birdwatcher Newsletter (January/February 2003), 4-5.
Henry, Alfred J. "Salton Sea and the Rainfall of the Southwest." National Geographic (April 1907), 244-48.


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