The Salton Sea

It used to be a vibrant tourist spot with boats and sunbathers. Now it’s a toxic lake with abandoned houses and crumbling piers.

The Salton Sea in southern California is a freshwater lake that is saltier than the Pacific Ocean.The cause: a combination of human tinkering and climate change.

It’s California’s largest lake formed nearly a century ago during a flood when the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal and flowed into a nearby valley. It would have dried up in the hot desert sun. But local residents decided to preserve it by diverting the runoff from surrounding farms into the lake.

By the 1940’s the huge lake became an oasis with water skiing and vacation homes. It was stocked with fish that attracted migrating birds and tourists. Small towns popped up along the coast.

But for the past three decades the Salton Sea has been evaporating – losing more water than is being replaced. There is less agricultural runoff and drought is making water scarce. 

It’s expected to shrink dramatically over the next decade exposing hundreds of kilometres of shoreline and further concentrating salt and farm chemicals in the water. There is an ongoing debate over the solution.

I went to visit Bombay Beach, one of the few remaining communities on the shores of the lake. I found a place struggling but not giving up just yet. Artists are now moving there, lured by the end-of-the-world feeling of  the retreating shoreline and disintegrating buildings.

Residents are hoping all this will keep their town alive – at least in the short term.