The California drought has diminished much of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams, but the rise and demise of the Salton Sea occurred on a different timeline. Though the man-made lake was once one of California’s most popular water resorts, the sea is now dried up, abandoned and nearly forgotten. Here’s what happened.
The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905, when water from the Colorado river spilled out of a poorly-constructed California Development Company irrigation system. The lake grew over the next two years, until workers were able to staunch the massive flow. By this time, a 400-square-mile body of water had formed on the Salton basin in southern California. They called it the Salton Sea.
For the past 100 years, the Salton Sea has been referred to as an endorheic lake, meaning that its waters never discharge to the ocean; they either seep into the ground or evaporate. This condition has resulted in water with an extremely high salinity level—more than that of the Pacific Ocean—that continues to rise with time.
In the 1950s and 60s, salination levels were lower, and the Salton Sea was a popular tourist hotspot. Millions of visitors would flock to the sea’s relatively warms waters each year—often drawing more tourists annually than Yosemite. Nearby towns like Niland and Salton City welcomed guests, who frolicked along the warm beaches and enjoyed the Salton Sea’s reputation as a beautiful oasis.