Welcome back for some more myth debunking! Last time we talked about the unlikely possibility of a ship full of pearls being sunk at the bottom of the Salton Sea. But I also mentioned several other prevalent myths or mistruths that other posts on this blog have now addressed:

“The Salton Sea is not safe to swim in.” ——————————————– BUSTED!

“It is a toxic dump created by agricultural pesticides.” ——————— BUSTED!

Geothermal energy is expensive and not competitive.” ——————- BUSTED!

“The Salton Sea is a marginal ecological and economical resource.” – BUSTED!

Perhaps one of the most tossed-around misunderstandings surrounding the Sea is this:

“The Salton Sink would be dry right now were it not for the accident in 1905. Therefore, we should just let the Sea dry up.”

While this argument is convenient for those who consider the Sea a lost cause, it is all bark and no bite. We know this current manifestation of the Sea is only the most recent in a long line of periodic existences. As with most rivers, the tail end of the mighty Colorado naturally shifts with time like the tip of a flag in a breeze. [1] In its history, it has intermittently flowed to the Gulf of California and to the Salton Sink. It just happened to be dry when settlers were establishing the area in the early 20th century, but the failed attempt to controllably siphon water from the Colorado to irrigate in the Imperial Valley resulted in the most recent existence of the Salton Sea.

What is rarely talked about is the fact that 1905-06 was perhaps the wettest period in America’s southwest for several centuries prior. [2] Couple that with the fact that the Colorado River was no feeble trickle, and you could make an argument that the river was ready to move toward the western edge of its delta again, with or without the carelessness and audacity of the California Development Company (CDC).

So let’s consider for a moment the hypothetical past, in which the CDC had constructed a responsible and sufficiently capable canal for the volume of water it wanted out of the river. Let’s also assume this construction could withstand the all-too common silting associated with the Colorado River (and the reason for which it whipped west and east.) In this case, the river is now sufficiently diverted so as to not flood its banks and continues its relatively predictable path to the Gulf of California, while Imperial Valley gets its irrigation water, followed shortly by Coachella Valley in 1948. [3] The agriculture industry thus continues its ascent towards the lion’s share of the region’s economy, ultimately forcing out the New Liverpool Salt Company as its salt mining would succumb to the need for a runoff depository, a task fit for the dry lakebed.

So where would all the agricultural runoff from the valleys go? It could not flow uphill over the mountains into the Pacific, nor would it defy gravity by moving southward into Mexico. No, it would terminate in the lowest point it could reach; the Salton Sink basin. As Congress recognized in 1928 [4], seepage water from the valleys needed a designated destination, and that would undoubtedly still have been the Salton Sink. As William DeBuys writes in Salt Dreams, “in low places, consequences collect.”

Figure 1. The Salton Sea and the productive agriculture regions of Coachella Valley to the north, and Imperial Valley to the south. Courtesy of Google Images.
Figure 1. The Salton Sea and the productive agriculture regions of Coachella Valley to the north, and Imperial Valley to the south. Courtesy of Google Images. Click to enlarge.

With or without the “Great Diversion” of 1905 [5], as it is appropriately named, the Salton Sea would have been formed, again, either by Mother Nature’s whim, or by the settler’s earnest for agriculture in one of the sunniest places in the contiguous states. The issues associated with agricultural runoff have been mentioned already, and we would still be dealing with these issues even if the Colorado River had not made her U-turn north at Yuma in 1905.

What we are left with now is a thirsty sea. One that needs water even just to keep the dust down, not to mention the ecological and economic consequences on the horizon. One that needs intervention on the local, state, federal, and quite possibly even international scale.

So again I say to you, the notion that the Sea should return to its dry roots is simply a mistruth.

Written by Drew Story


[1] Eugene Singer, “Ancient Lake Cahuilla,” in Geology of the Imperial Valley. San Diego State University, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/AncientLakeCahuilla.html.

[2] David Meko and Donald A. Graybill, “Tree-Ring Reconstruction of Upper Gila River Discharge,” Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 31 (1995): 605-616.

[3] “Groundwater Replenishment and Imported Water,” Coachella Valley Water District, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.cvwd.org/162/groundwater-replenishment-imported-water.

[4] Victor M. Ponce, “The Salton Sea: An Assessment,” San Diego State University, accessed June 9, 2015, saltonsea.sdsu.edu.

[5] William DeBuys and Joan Myers, Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California 63-99.