Lonely Planet Writer

Accidental California lake gets financial help to fight decline

The Salton Sea in southern California was created by accident and has suffered environmental problems ever since. But there’s hope on the watery horizon now after the US federal government announced financial support for the beleaguered lake.

Salton Sea, California
Salton Sea, California Image by oliver.dodd / CC BY 2.0

Back at the start of the 20th century, irrigation canals were built in the area of what was then called the Salton Sink, to bring water from the Colorado River to the region and create a feasible farming community. The system worked well until 1905 when heavy snow melt swelled the flow of the river, levees broke, and for almost two years the whole basin flooded, creating what became known as the Salton Sea.

For a while the lake, the biggest body of water in California, was a cool hangout with stars coming from LA for weekend visits and migrating birds using it as a stop-off. Soon, however, evaporation got worse as the rivers that kept the sea’s levels topped up started having their water siphoned off for irrigation elsewhere. Resulting increased salinity in the water began to kill off the fish, and newly exposed soil, previously treated with dangerous pesticides, was whipped up by the area’s frequent strong winds making the air toxic for locals.

Over decades the situation got worse and worse. The only tourists coming here were those seeking to gawp at this manmade disaster and take in the pungent aroma of rotting fish. Now though, at a conference in Lake Tahoe, President Obama has announced federal funding of $30 million to help combat the sea’s decline. The money will be spent on health issues for inhabitants, environmental protection, and sustainable energy projects in the area.