The Case of the Salton Sea

2009/09/04 § Leave a comment

The history of this incredibly fascinating body of water caught in edge conditions since time immemorial feels like nature’s way of telling us that poorly selected sites will more quickly lead to entropy. ” The Salton Sink or Salton Basin has had a long history of alternately being occupied by a fresh water lake and being a dry, empty desert basin, all according to the random river flows, and the balance between inflow and evaporative loss. A lake would exist only when it was replenished by the river and rainfall, a cycle that repeated itself countless times over hundreds of thousands of years – most recently in 1905.”

It is also a subject of much folklore with a long history of human involvement. Wouldn’t it seem like an oasis to you? It’s a giant lake in the middle of the desert. It had an abundance of salt. People began mining it in the 1870s, with yearly visits to export the mineral to the Los Angeles area. After that, tourism obviously followed, with hotels, and even whole towns formed to take advantage of the ancient oasis.

But, there is a piece of more remote history that is quite interesting. ” Reports by emigrants, prospectors, and other travelers of an ancient ship lying in the desert sands, subsequently buried and uncovered by the blowing, shifting sands have persisted for many years. A story appeared in the Los Angeles Star in its November 12, 1870 edition that “Charley Clusker and a party started out again this morning to find the mythical ship upon the desert this side of Dos Palmas. Charley made the trip three or four weeks ago, but made the wrong chute and mired his wagon fifteen miles from Dos Palmas. He is satisfied from information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth….He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground.” The Salton Sea was once connected to the Gulf of California!! A Spanish exploratory ship, as this legend tells us, once tried an inland mission only to be deposited in the windy sands of the Mojave, never to be seen again. If that is not enough to remind us of climate change, then I do not know what can.

It’s environmental degradation is mind boggling: “The lack of an outflow means that the Salton Sea is a system of accelerated change. Variations in agricultural runoff cause fluctuations in water level (and flooding of surrounding communities in the 1950s and 1960s), and the relatively high salinity of the inflow feeding the Sea has resulted in ever increasing salinity. By the 1960s it was apparent that the salinity of the Salton Sea was rising, jeopardizing some of the species in it. The Salton Sea currently has a salinity exceeding 40% (saltier than seawater) and many species of fish are no longer able to survive in the Salton. It is believed that once the salinity surpasses 44‰, only the tilapia will survive. Fertilizer runoff, combined with the increasing salinity and the highly polluted water from the northward-flowing New River have resulted in large algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels. The New River is considered to be the single most polluted river in America.”

The Mojave was once home to an abundance of Native American tribes, just as many parts of the great plains today are inhabited by our current culture. The lessons of run-off and improper loading of surface drainage has got to teach us something about where we are heading.

The images here are beautiful in their eery qualities…..nature can do that to you.

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