Salton Sea Is Dead--Keep It That Way

Ivan P. Colburn is emeritus professor of geology at Cal State Los Angeles

Saving the Salton Sea, as many have advocated, is a dubious project because it cannot be supported by science. The Salton Sea was created by an accidental break in an agricultural diversion canal of the Colorado River. The break allowed Colorado River water to flow into a sub-sea level depression in the Colorado Desert, thereby temporarily creating a fresh water lake. The fresh water ultimately became very salty because the evaporation rate is high in the Colorado Desert and no additional fresh water diversions were developed to reduce the lake’s salinity.

The salinity of the Salton Sea is now more than three times that of ocean water. The transition from fresh water to salt water should be clue enough to alert even the most myopic observer that the sea can never be made into a viable bird refuge or recreational water body under current topographic and climatic conditions. If a huge, permanent inflow of fresh water from the Colorado River could be provided to dilute the sea’s salt content, the Salton Sea still could not be saved, because there is no outlet to the Gulf of California to flush away the salt that will continue to build up in spite of the addition of more fresh water. Moreover, the only feasible outlet for the Salton Sea is to the Gulf of California, and that would be impossible to develop because to do so would require the lake to be filled to a level that would drown virtually all of the agricultural land in the Coachella and Imperial valleys.

The idea that the Salton Sea is an indispensable stopover for birds is not supported by the facts. What do you suppose the birds did for thousands of years before the break in the irrigation canal created the lake that ultimately became the Salton Sea? They did what all birds would do: They flew a different route. The last time the Salton trough was a lake by nature’s processes was during the last glacial period, about 17,000 years ago, when there were lakes all over the California, Nevada and Utah deserts. During that time, we even had glaciers in the San Bernardino Mountains and a rainfall level in Southern California that was comparable to that of the Pacific Northwest today. Almost all of those lakes, created by the high level of precipitation, have dried up because the climate became more arid at the conclusion of the last ice age. One of the few lakes remaining from that era is Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Great Salt Lake was a fresh water lake during the last ice age, and fresh water still flows into the lake from rivers coming off the Uinta Mountains. However, the lake has no outlet through which its salt-laden water can be flushed away to the ocean. Consequently, Great Salt Lake is eight times more salty than ocean water. The birds that populate the lake are all clustered around the fresh water inlet. If it were not for that inlet, the lake would be virtually devoid of bird life.


The only input of water now to the Salton Sea is runoff coming from the nearby agricultural fields. This water, which is the sole source for maintaining the current lake level, is laden with pesticide and chemical fertilizer, a condition that has turned the Salton Sea into a death trap for birds.

The only nearby source of unpolluted fresh water is the Colorado River, but all its water is allocated to cities and agricultural districts in Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. Any additional Colorado water would be needed to supplement Los Angeles’ water supply, so that the city can divert Owens River water to Owens Lake to solve the problem of dust pollution created when that lake dried up.

If something is to be done to enhance the habitat for the birds and other wildlife in southeastern California in honor of the late Rep. Sonny Bono, it should be done to the riparian and lake environments on the lower Colorado River and its tributaries. Good water is available all along the lower Colorado River and wildlife habitat improvements there won’t require the massive expenditure of tax dollars that would have to be spent foolishly trying to make the Salton Sea into a bird refuge and recreation area.

The Salton is a dead sea. Efforts to revive it as a bird refuge and recreation site are doomed to failure because they do not take into account its setting, the absence of a nearby source of fresh water and the very arid climate of the Colorado Desert. Yet if corrective measures aren’t undertaken to change the factors that have contributed to the present condition of the sea, this body of water will continue as an environmental abscess on the southeastern California landscape.


The long-term solution is to let the Salton Sea dry up and return the Salton trough to the desert it was before the canal break. For this to happen, agricultural runoff must be stopped. This is the only solution that takes into account the three controlling environmental factors that created the problem.

This solution, however, flies directly in the face of all the agricultural interests in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and therefore will probably be ignored. Most likely we will be saddled with one or more dubious and very expensive government-funded mitigation projects, which simply will not provide a long-term solution.