Monday, February 21, 2022

The Lake Nobody Wanted

The year was 1905. People in the Imperial Valley had been busy building an irrigation canal to convert a large stretch of desert into fertile land. The work on the canal had been tedious, but the water from the Colorado would make the Imperial Valley into the biggest vegetable producing area in the US. However, what nobody was aware of, was that the Colorado River had built up a big natural dam of sediments, sand and gravel down stream. Instead of running out into the Sea of Cortez, the back flow started to overfill the newly dug canal until the pressure on the canal dikes got too high. And then disaster struck. 

The river was now flooding the Imperial Valley. Newly built homes drowned in the flood waters. The water found its way into the upper Imperial Valley, which lies some 226.4ft under sea level. In fact, it filled the entire basin north up to the town of Mekka. 

A huge lake was filling up fast now. Since it was surrounded by higher terrain, the water had no outlet. 

When it had reached a certain level, the Colorado pressed its waters against the natural dam it had built downstream and finally broke through. The river was now back in its original bed and the water level in the lake stopped rising. The farm areas dried out again, though it took years before the damage could be repaired.


Fast forward to the fifties: Quickly, the lake became a popular area for recreation- seeking city dwellers from San Diego and L.A. People brought their boats and camped out along the lake.

Accommodations and restaurants were built and the area was crowded every weekend. Land owners sold building lots for vacation homes and cabins. During the fifties and sixties, the disaster of the early 1900s turned into a gold mine. 

Sadly, the lake had only one small inlet, the Alamo River, which really is only a small creek. The lack of freshwater into the lake should become a major problem. The salt-containing ground dirt under the lake started to convert the fresh water of the Colorado into Salt water. Additionally, a lot of agricultural run-off was getting into the Alamo River, thus leading to overfertilizing and poisening the water with herbicides and insecticides. The hot summers in the valley led to a steady high evaporation of water, thus increasing the salinity of the lake. Pretty soon the little marina south of Mekka got abandoned, as boaters didn't like to put their boats into the ever more salty water. On top of that, the water gave off an unpleasant funny smell.

Fish in the lake started to die, finally leaving only little saline crabs in the water.

In 2005 we saw the lake for the first time. We stayed one night in one of the state-run campgrounds, but didn't like the smell of the lake water, which had an awful reddish colour.

Due to yearly evaporation and ongoing droughts, the lake has now receded several hundred yards from the original shoreline. Where water once was washing up the shore, endless streams of white barnacle shells are now pretending to be sand. 

This weekend we are again camping in one of the campgrounds along the lake. 

It has become a major attraction again, this time for birders. And Bea is all excited to prowl along the saltcrusted shoreline to get some nice photo shots of the birds.

And while I'll leave Bea to the birds, I will be attending a "Sourdough Festival" in the Palm Springs area.

Some Salton Sea data:

Area: 343.2 sq.miles (888.88 sqkm)
Surface elevation: -226.4′ (69m)
Length: 34.8 mi  (55,7km)
Width: 14.91 mi  (23,86km)

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