The Salton Sea is not actually a sea at all but rather a rift lake found in the San Andreas Fault. It is significant due to its elevation, which is currently measured at around 235 below sea level at its surface. The lake is fed into by the Alamo, New, and Whitewater Rivers, and it also collects agricultural runoff. Whilst the lake will vary in dimensions according to rainfall and how much water has flown in, it is usually measured at around 35 by 15 miles, making it the largest lake in California.
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The salinity of the waters is currently around 56 grams of salt per liter, which is more than the Pacific Ocean but less saturated than the Great Salt Lake. The concentration of salt in the lake is steadily increasing by about 3% every year, as roughly 4,000,000 tons of new salt deposits make their way into the water annually.
The entire area used to be a vast sea that covered the lower elevations of the valley and made up a large proportion of what is now Southern California.
The lake is on an always rotating cycle, at times freshwater lake, then a saline one before evaporating and drying into a desolate desert basin. This cycle rotates every 400 to 500 years and is determined by river flow as well as the delicate dance between evaporative loss and inflow.
At one time, the Salton Sea did enjoy some success as a resort area with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores built upon the western side and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach on the east in the 1950s. This venture died off as the lake became naturally more saline and unnaturally more polluted by the agricultural runoff that feeds into the lake. Many of these settlements are now greatly decreased in size or have been abandoned altogether.
Many of the fish that once called the lake home have also died off due to the increasing pollution. As mass quantities of dead fish washed up on the beaches, the smell of their decay as well as that of the lake itself further drove the decline of the tourist industry in the area. The smell was described by the US Geological Survey as being “objectionable, noxious, unique, and pervasive.” While the fish have not thrived, avian life has flourished and the lake has been called “a crowning jewel of avian biodiversity.” Over 400 different species call the lake home and it’s probably one of the largest and most diverse populations of bird life in the United States.
The Salton Sea has capitalized on its unique history and now many visitors enjoy the trip to its shores once again, exploring the abandoned settlements and buildings left behind from its previous incarnation as a resort. It also has visitors who are there to enjoy the range of geothermic activity, including mud pots and mud volcanoes, which are found on the eastern shore; there are also a number of geothermal electricity plants located along the southeastern side of the lake.