Silent Sea, Salton Sea

salton_seasized salton_sea_tilapia-791657

When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism:  A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works.  My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”

Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed.  Treaty be damned!

My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.


This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert.  The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley.  When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs.  My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.

salton_sea_yachtThis modernist paradise has seen better days.  You can see a very nice val_kilmer_deborah_kara_unger_salton_sea_001assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here.  The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead.  Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear.  He’s pretty creepy.


caljsiol_sio1ca175_113_017So how did this dead sea come to be?  The satellite image at the top tells the story.  The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields.  The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world.   Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water.  Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley.   In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.

There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed.  Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance.  The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate.  Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.”  Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips.  The Sink was filling up at a rate of  a half-foot a day.  More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away.  Radical, man!  You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.

When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t.  The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled.  Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while.  Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time.  This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant.  The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today.  Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.

Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!



11 Responses to Silent Sea, Salton Sea

  1. Susan says:

    I have also been fascinated by the Salton Sea, what caused its demise, what allure it once had and what does the future hold for this great body of water. A truly unique place, even now… worth a visit and definitely worth the speculation on how to make it a safe haven for fish and birds once again. Thanks for your post – a good read!

  2. Very interesting indeed.

    The Salton City was a boom-town during the housing rush as new home builders purchased vast amounts of land, developed, and built tract homes by the hundreds and thousands.

    Unfortunately the area could not sustain the housing market shift and now these lovely near new 2-3 year old homes sit empty. Where they once fetched prices upwards of $200,000 for a 3 or 4 bedroom home with tile flooring, granite counter-tops and new appliances, are available as foreclosures for $60,000.

    Truly amazing…indeed. These homes are very nice, however as the saying goes, “Location Location Location” is vital and important. The area has gorgeous views of the sea, mountains and the desertscape.

    New infrustructure is settling in slowly, however the Sea communities are about 30-40 miles in each direction north to Indio and Coachella or south to Brawley and Imperial.

    Interested in an almost new home in the Salton City Sea area? Contact at your convenience or check out the video walk throughs of several homes online by going to

  3. If you haven’t seen the documentary film, Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea, it’s a very interesting, quirky look at the region and its history.

  4. Bunnie says:

    The rumor is that the foundations are shifting in the new homes is that true?

  5. lichanos says:


    Got me! Can you send me a link to a news article or something?

  6. cigi says:

    A well-done and very interesting post, in fact, I like your blog very much. I’ll be back! 🙂 Thanks again for your visits to my blog and for your comments.

  7. elizabeth says:

    hace como dos semanas pase por salton sea y me detuve para ver de mas cerca y es muy triste ver como estan muertos los pescados….. igual se ve que anteriormente era un gran lugar para visitar…por otro lado las casas que estan ahi construidas algunas son muy bonitas y grandes…espero que se mejore la ecologia en ese lugar y que tengan todas las personas que viven ahi una vida productiva y saludable.

    saludos a todos!!!!

  8. Sean Foster says:

    Great post for sure. I left my house real early to shoot some photographs of the Salton Sea. This being my first time here, I ended up right next door to the Salton Sea Rec Area. Very strange in the dark hours but when the sun came up, wow. I’ve been looking all over the place for info and I found it here. I wanted to thank you for this post and the info in it.


  9. anelsen says:

    Thanks for the background on the Salton Sea. My wife and I were biking in the Laguanas yesterday and caught some views of the Salton Sea. Your paper provided a new and very interesting perspective on the area!

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