Set in a stark and barren landscape in the deserts of Southern California the Salton Sea was created by an environmental disaster in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed its banks and flowed across the desert and into the Salton Sink, a prehistoric lakebed. By the time the river was contained, nearly two years later, the lake covered an area of about 376 square miles. Today, another environmental disaster is killing the lake along with the dreams of those who live there.
The Salton Sea became a tourist attraction during the 1920’s because of its recreational boating, sport fishing, and abundant waterfowl and had some success as a resort area during the 1950’s with places such as Salton Sea Beach and Bombay Beach being developed but by the 1960’s it was clear that the lake was in trouble. Because it has no outlet and has three rivers flowing into it, one of which is considered the most polluted river in the United States, the salinity and toxicity levels of the lake started rising killing off waterfowl and many of the species of fish that were introduced in the 1930’s. Today only Tilapia thrives and even they suffer from frequent die-offs where millions of dead fish cover the shoreline and rot in the desert heat. The white beaches at the Salton Sea aren’t made of sand but of the crushed skeletons of the fish. There are several communities that have been built up around the lake but today they are largely deserted with only a few hardy souls hanging on. It is a sad, surreal place. But there is serenity to it also, with its quiet waters, dramatic skies, stark landscape, and, everywhere, the detritus of civilization and of broken dreams glowing in the soft light of days end.
Salton Sea Beach is on the western shore of the Salton Sea about an hour’s drive south of Palm Springs, California, off of Highway 86. There are limited facilities at the lake including, gas, food, lodging, and camping but nothing at Salton Sea Beach itself. Call ahead if you plan on visiting; it can get awfully smelly at times.