Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea in southern California has a very interesting history.  Today, it is California's largest lake, is 200 feet below sea level, and is more than 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean.  But it wasn't always like this: it used to be as dry as the surrounding desert!

Around 2,000 year ago, the Salton Sink and the Imperial Valley (the vast basing that today holds the Salton Sea) was home to Lake Cahuilla, a much larger body of water than the present Salton Sea.  Over time, it was naturally drained, and the area then turned into a hot, dry desert.  This process has happened numerous times over the years, as the Salton Sea is, according to a brochure that I got from there, a "landlocked extension" of the Gulf of California to the south.  The last time the Salton Sink was dry was around the early 1900s.  But it wouldn't stay that way for long.

The year was 1901.  In order for water to reach the Salton Sink and Mexico, the Colorado River was diverted from Yuma, Arizona, through Mexico, and into the sink for agriculture.  Four years later, in 1905, a diversion structure failed, and caused the entire might of the Colorado River to flood into the Imperial Valley.  For two years, from 1905 to 1907, the massive outflow of the Colorado River slowly built up in that natural basin, resulting in what we today call the Salton Sea!  (It would suck to be the dudes who made THAT boo-boo).  Since the basin (and thus the sea) are both landlocked, as well as below sealevel, that means that the sole means of exit for the water in the basin is through evaporation.  And since minerals and salts don't can probably see where this is going.

The Salton Sea, as I have mentioned before, is 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean with the level of salinity in excess of 40,000 parts per million.  Many of the native fish that were washed or swam into the newly created body of water were unable to cope with the continued increase of salinity, and have died out.  Some marine fish, such as Gulf croaker, orange-mouth corvina, and sargo have been introduced and established, as well as tilapia.  However, they too will most likely end up going extinct in the basin, unable to cope with the ever-increasing levels of salinity.

When we visited there, not only did it stink, but there were dead fish skeletons everywhere.  And when I say everywhere, I really mean everywhere.  Interspersed amongst the rotting fish carcasses were the remains of an enormous number of gulls and other sea birds that will visit the Salton Sea.

Now the picture I am painting you is a grim one: "Why would I ever want to visit this place?" you're probably wondering.  Well, according to the brochures, the Salton Sea is one of the world's "most important winter stops for birds traveling the Pacific flyway."  Some of the many birds that can be found on the shores of the Salton Sea include a personal favorite of mine, the black skimmer, white pelicans, yellow-footed gulls, Caspian terns, Canada geese, pintail ducks, marbled godwits, snow geese, osprey, American avocets, Yuma clapper rail, black-bellied plover, black-bellied, whistling duck, wood storks, roadrunners, great blue heron, and brown pelicans, along with many, many other birds!  We of course didn't see all of these birds when we were there, but we certainly saw a large number of birds!  I would definitely recommend checking this place out if ever you are in the area, the natural history of the place, combined with the bird watching, makes it well worth the trip!

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