The Toxic History of the Salton Sea

A Dead Sea

The history of one of North America’s most polluted bodies of water.


The United States’ century-old ambition to impound and divvy up every drop of water that could be wrung from its most arid stretches began with a flood. A private firm called the California Development Company (CDC) completed a canal in 1901 that zigzagged across the state’s border with Mexico in order to connect the Colorado River to a dry riverbed that aspiring farmers had already begun to section off for themselves, heeding the proclamation by the newly founded Imperial Valley Press that the region constituted “the most fertile body of arid land on the continent.”

Only two years later, the CDC’s canal was filled with silt, and the customers who had paid up-front for rights to water that could no longer be delivered started filing lawsuits. The CDC dug a new ditch next to the original canal, but in its desperation to act quickly, the company neglected to build any means of controlling how much of the river was diverted into this new channel: If the Colorado flooded, the excess water had nowhere to go but toward the Imperial Valley. To make matters worse, 1905 was an unusually wet year, and by autumn the Colorado was flowing with the same force as Niagara Falls. The CDC’s diversion held, but that only served to funnel the entire river downhill into the valley’s center, a vast salt plain then known as the Salton Sink. It would take two years before the river was contained. Once it was, California had a new body of water, the Salton Sea, almost twice the size of Lake Tahoe.

The Salton Sea was formed before the Hoover Dam, before Lake Powell, before the aqueducts that stretch for hundreds of miles across the West. But there were many more new water features on the horizon: The Bureau of Reclamation, created to develop a “system of nationally-aided irrigation for the arid reaches of the far West,” began building dams across the region in the first decade of the 1900s. It also acquired control of many private water schemes in order to subsidize the price of the water delivered to farmers and residents of the future communities that were being built by urban developers.

The West became dependent on these waterworks as soon as they were constructed, even as their forerunner, the Salton Sea, was slowly transforming into a surreal and toxic landmark. The so-called sea’s salinity began to rise as soon as it was formed, because its water evaporated steadily in the unrelenting sunshine. Over the following decades, the lost water began to be replenished by the runoff from the acres of farms and feedlots spreading across its southern edge. But as the basin was refilling, the runoff was turning the Salton Sea into one of the most polluted bodies of water in the West—a lake that gives off a sulfuric stench of eggs and kills migrating birds by the thousands. The western shore, meanwhile, was littered with detritus from weapons testing by the United States military, and along the eastern shore you could find a tourist town called Bombay Beach that would be all but abandoned in the 1970s after being flooded with runoff. Bombay Beach has since found a second life as an artists’ colony that, starting in 2015, has staged a yearly “biennale” that bills itself as a “renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy that takes place on the literal edge of western civilization.” But everywhere around the Salton Sea, the shoreline is receding, leaving thousands of acres of polluted playa—the earth that remains after the water has evaporated—which, once it becomes airborne on the wind, produces some of the worst asthma rates in California.

In The Settler Sea: California’s Salton Sea and the Consequences of Colonialism, Traci Brynne Voyles, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma, catalogs the alarming events that created this environmental disaster as well as the efforts of policy-makers and private interests to maintain a stranglehold on the area they dubbed the Imperial Valley. The story of the Salton Sea is a revealing one, helping us understand the limits of the United States’ ability to conquer and control the landscape.

Voyles pegs the beginning of the desert’s despoliation to the arrival of settlers in the West. Thousands gravitated to the Colorado River in the 1880s and ’90s for the same reason that Indigenous people had done so for thousands of years: Its 1,450-mile run, from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, provides the most reliable water source in the vast desert that covers North America’s underbelly. Not that the Colorado was ever predictable: In some years the river was a pleasant stream, in others a nightmarish rapid. After engineers repeatedly failed to constrain the river in 1905, a resolute Los Angeles Times declared that “American engineering will not for long be baffled even by a mighty and treacherous Colorado River.” And yet it was: Even in the 1920s, the river troubled many of the region’s residents to such an extent that California Senator Hiram Johnson added “devilish” to the list of pejoratives thrown at the Colorado, in a speech calling for it to be tamed into “a servant of mankind.” If the Southwest was to become a land of plenty for the white settlers who now lived there, the first step was to subdue the Colorado River.

While the Anglos of the Imperial Valley may have been surprised by the Colorado’s wild gyrations, the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay people, who had lived there for centuries, were well acquainted with its tendency to occasionally run so powerfully that it redirected itself away from the Gulf of California and into the Salton Sink.

When that happened, the Cahuillas who lived in the valley would escape to the hills along its edge and, once they had reestablished their settlements, sustain themselves by fishing in the newly formed body of water. After the water evaporated, they dug wells deep into the exposed valley floor and relied on mesquite trees for sustenance. Meanwhile the Kumeyaay, whose traditional lands straddle today’s California-Mexico border, practiced flood irrigation along the Colorado’s banks. As with the Maidu peoples of the Sierra Nevada, who understood forest fires to be a natural part of their homeland’s life cycle, the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay thought of flooding not as something that should be stopped but as a natural process that life had to be oriented around.

The white settlers of the Imperial Valley, meanwhile, were baffled by the reaction of the Indigenous peoples to events the settlers found catastrophic. When a salt-mining operation in the Salton Sink, set up by an entrepreneur to harvest the bountiful deposits left behind by previous floods, was washed away in the 1890s, its owner stood flabbergasted as the Cahuilla laborers he had hired “packed their belongings, abandoned the salt field, and headed into the mountains.”

Voyles makes a persuasive case that the Salton Sink likely would have been flooded in 1905 even without the CDC’s negligence. Nevertheless, the new arrivals to the Imperial Valley refused to adapt to the Colorado’s cycles the way the Cahuilla had. Once the Salton Sea was formed after the flood of 1905, scientists predicted it would fully evaporate by the 1930s, but settlement prevented this process from running its course. Instead, as more and more people moved into the region and set up farms, more runoff was directed toward the Salton Sea, turning it into a “natural dumping basin.”

For the past century, then, every year has seen some of the sea evaporate, only for that water to be replaced by runoff contaminated with, among other things, DDT and untreated human sewage. Making matters worse was the military testing done by the United States in the 1940s and ’50s. The lake, like nearly half the land in the West, is the legal property of the federal government, and the Defense Department and the Air Force took advantage of that fact by crashing more than a dozen aircraft into the Salton Sea during World War II training exercises; after the war, nuclear weapons researchers dropped thousands of dummy bombs into its waters, many of which included raw uranium.

For this reason, Voyles calls the Salton Sea “an archive of twentieth-century toxins.” And as the Southwest’s current megadrought—which began 20 years ago—worsens, it’s no longer possible to pretend that those toxins will remain sequestered forever. The sea’s shoreline has been receding rapidly since 2018, after the expiration of an agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and San Diego that diverted water to prevent the polluted lake bed from being exposed. By 2025, as much as 40 percent of the sea’s volume could be gone, leaving behind tens of thousands of acres of sand laced with toxins and easily kicked up by the breeze. One in five children in Imperial County already suffers from asthma, and a higher proportion of them are admitted to emergency rooms for life-threatening episodes than anywhere else in the state. The more the sea’s water evaporates, the more dangerous the air will become for the families of the farmworkers who labor downwind.

In addition to this physical legacy of settler colonialism, Voyles charts the less obvious systems of oppression that created the infrastructure necessary for the agriculture, defense, and tourism industries to exploit the region, observing that “the labor of constructing this world around, because of, and for the Salton Sea often came from a specific category of workers: incarcerated ones.” In the early 20th century, Hispanic and Indigenous men who had been arrested for public drunkenness were routinely impressed into mining granite from Superstition Mountain, which overlooks the Salton Sea, for the material then used to pave the county’s roads. The Salton Sea has also led to the Cahuilla people’s dispossession, not only of the lifeways that were once informed by the Colorado’s rhythms but also of the land the US government ceded to them. When the Salton Sea was formed, close to half of the Torres Martinez Cahuilla reservation, a 24,000-acre parcel of land, the first portion of which was granted 1876, was inundated with floodwater, destroying many of the reservation’s wells. Rather than provide support to the Cahuilla farmers to build new waterworks and cultivate the land that was left, officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs gladly facilitated the claiming of their water rights by white settlers and then expressed disbelief when members of the tribe left the reservation to find work elsewhere. It was an impossible situation: As Voyles puts it, federal officials were blithely hoping “to convert the Native people into dryland farmers—dryland farmers, that is, without enough land or enough water to produce a crop.”

Public officials also tried to remake the area around the Salton Sea into a lake resort, complete with “exclusive resort hotels, water sports facilities, beaches, and every other type of service and accommodations that will attract winter tourists and health-seekers.” Date Palm Beach sprouted up on the northern shore in 1926, followed by the North Shore Yacht Club and, to the east, Bombay Beach. By the 1950s, celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson were vacationing on one shore of the Salton Sea while uranium-laced bombs were dropped into it on the other side.

The days of this “California Riviera” were numbered. A surge of agricultural production in the 1960s led to the inundation of many of the beach resorts with runoff, and what few pleasure seekers remained in the late ’70s were scared off when the lake’s surface became scummy with brown and yellow slime.

At this point, Voyles writes, the Salton Sea had become a “petri dish under a huge heat lamp.” The high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water fed explosive algae growth, which deprived the lake’s fish of nutrients, leading to massive die-offs. Once the fish started floating belly-up by the millions, avian cholera, salmonellosis, and botulism spread like wildfire through the bird population. By 1996, Voyle writes, birds were dying at such a rapid clip that all of the corpses couldn’t be disposed of, even when national wildlife refuge workers were running an incinerator 24 hours a day.

Can anything be done to save the Salton Sea? The most ambitious proposal involves spending billions of dollars to dig a 125-mile-long canal to the Gulf of California, a plan that would refill and stabilize the lake even as it risked sending pollution rushing toward the already ravaged Colorado River Delta. Loath to commit to yet more landscape reengineering, California’s Department of Water Resources has focused instead on the short-term fix of pumping water from the center of the Salton Sea into new wetlands along its exposed shoreline, a plan that will stretch the surface area of the lake as thinly as possible in the hopes of keeping its noxious dust at bay, though it does nothing to solve the vicious cycle of contamination and evaporation that is harming the landscape and its inhabitants.

While no body of water in the West is quite as vexed as the Salton Sea, echoes of its dissolution have been evident across the region this summer. Lake Powell, which attracted over 4 million motor boaters and #lakelife Instagrammers as recently as 2019, has seen its annual visitation shrink as more and more of the reservoir is drained to supply water to Southwestern cities and farms, leaving the ramps that tourists previously used to launch their vessels stranded far from the water’s edge. In California, the aura of depletion has produced a similar sense of dread, as forest fires grow more ferocious by the year; the fires and the water shortages are the inevitable consequences of a century of misguided policies meant to domesticate the natural world. Meanwhile, last year’s brutal summer temperatures killed all but approximately 3 percent of the Sacramento River’s juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon, a fish whose placement on the endangered species list has been attributed to the havoc the construction of Shasta Dam wreaked on its habitat. The disappearance of the Chinook is having profound effects on ecosystems across Northern California, from disrupting the region’s food chain to depriving inland areas of the nutrients the fish once provided.

Yet rather than accept the fatalism that so often sets in when considering a problem as enormous as the Salton Sea, let alone the climate crisis, Voyles concludes The Settler Sea by describing posters created in 2020 by Cahuilla artists that depict the lake area as a “vibrant and rich body of water, teeming with fish, birds, trees, and people.” She interprets these aspirational images as stemming from an understanding of the water that fills the Salton Sink as part of a natural cycle that might someday restore the land to health. It’s an appealing thought, albeit one that skirts a real reckoning with how unfeasible such a restoration appears to be on anything shorter than a geologic timescale.

The artists who have moved to Bombay Beach in recent years in a bid to transform it into a rural creative hub akin to Marfa or Joshua Tree have embraced the apocalyptic feeling of the place. One of the few roads that crests the berm constructed in the 1970s to protect the town from floodwaters opens out into an enormous stretch of dried-up lake bed. I visited Bombay Beach last fall, just as the sun was setting over the flat expanse of the Salton Sea, casting a soft glow on the art installations scattered around the beach. There’s an entrance to an imaginary metro station, its arch marking a descent into bare sand, as well as a toilet with some sticks poking out of the bowl. Most striking is The Death Ship, an assemblage of driftwood meant to resemble a wrecked pirate ship.

As I wandered around the beach, a BMW came over the berm and parked a short distance from my rental car: a couple from LA, here to gawk at the ruin of it all. The woman wandered toward the water’s edge while I chatted with her husband about the history of the Salton Sea. As I nodded along, he eagerly recounted the story of its accidental formation, the pollution, the failed tourist colony. Eventually he set off to find his wife, but not before gesturing widely at the sea, at California, at the whole wide West. “The land of fruits and nuts,” he said, laughing. “This is it.”

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