The Salton Sea

Indio, CA

Today began with a drive of about twenty miles to the north end of the Salton Sea.  Google Maps shows the Salton Sea Museum on Lincoln Street in that area, so off we went to learn more about this interesting body of water located in the middle of the desert.  We turned off the main highway on to Lincoln Street, then headed down a nice paved road.  But a few miles down this desolate road it turned to dirt and narrowed a bit.  This seemed to be a bit unusual for a road leading to a museum, but we continued for a few more miles.  Finally, we came to the scene pictured below, a rise in the road after a gate.  Hmmm.

The sign on the right listed some construction information, but did have the word “museum” below it, so we continued up the hill.  We were contemplating turning around, as it seemed we were just in a construction area, when we spied the sign below.

Continuing down the dirt road we went through another set of gates to the building in the center of the picture below.

That building turned out to be the museum.  We again contemplated turning around, as there was only one car in the lot and this didn’t look like any museum we had ever seen, when we spotted a “Yes, We’re Open” sign in the window, so in we went.

Upon entering, we were greeted by the museum’s owner/founder/curator, Jennie, who gave us a very interesting and informative tour of the facility.  She explained much of the history of the Salton Sea and concerns for the future of the Sea and surrounding area.

So how did a large body of water end up in the middle of a desert?  Millions of years ago the entire valley was part of what is now the Gulf of California.  Geologists estimate that for 3 million years the Colorado River worked to build its delta on the eastern shore of the Gulf. Eventually, the delta had reached the western shore of the Gulf, creating a massive dam that excluded the Salton Sea from the northern reaches of the Gulf.  Were it not for this dam, the entire Salton Sink, along with the Imperial Valley, would be submerged, as the Gulf would extend as far north as Indio.  As a result, the Salton Sink or Salton Basin has long been alternately a fresh water lake and a dry desert basin, depending on 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 when the lake was recreated in 1905.   This occurred because of irrigation canals built to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed.  Within two years, the canals became filled with silt from the Colorado River.  In 1905, heavy rainfall and snow melt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of headgates for one of the canals.   The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.

The area enjoyed some success as a tourist destination during the 40’s and 50’s.  But a number of floods in the late 50’s damaged the shore towns and, since there is no natural outlet to the Salton Sea, salt levels rose to such high levels that most fish species disappeared.  Now most of the towns along the shore are very run down.  Below is the nicest structure we saw during our visit. It is the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club.

The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club was designed by Albert Frey, a famous architect who lived in nearby Palm Springs.  It opened in 1962 as part of a $2 million development along the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea which would become California’s largest marina.  Several prominent figures from the entertainment industry docked boats there, among them members of The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis and The Marx Brothers.  Ever-increasing salinity from agricultural runoff  combined with fluctuating water levels culminated in a major flood in 1981, destroying the club’s jetty and making it impossible for boats to dock at the club and it would be completely closed by 1984.  Like the majority of the buildings which surround it, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club was abandoned and vandalized.  In July 2009, Riverside County supervisors approved the reception of a grant  to redevelop and restore the property.  On May 1, 2010, the restored yacht club was reopened to the public as the Salton Sea History Museum, serving as a community center as well as a museum. The museum was later forced to leave the building and relocated on  the other side of the Sea where we visited it today.

We continued down the east side of the Salton Sea, stopping at a small community with the exotic name of Bombay Beach.  Bombay Beach has a thriving population of 295 and is the lowest city in America, located 223 feet below sea level.  

The community was founded as a private development in 1929 and quickly grew in popularity with weekend visitors and retirees. The town was flooded in 1976 and again in 1977, when tropical storms, Hurricane Kathleen and Doreen hit the area, resulting in the Salton Sea rising dramatically. The famous shoreline bar, “The Waterfront” was washed away in the floods, along with a popular mobile home park.  Half flooded, the rest of Bombay Beach is kept dry with the help of a huge dike that surrounds the town.  Made up of a square mile grid of paved streets, the majority of the residents live in eclectic mobile homes. There is a small corner market, 2 bars, bait shop, volunteer fire station, an unmarked motel, and the flooded ruins of a once prosperous fishing mecca.

Bombay Beach

Below is a picture of the abandoned part of the town on the sea side of the dike, showing the remains of the RV park, with old trailers half buried in the sand.

As we discovered, the area along the Salton Sea shoreline is very economically depressed.  But Jennie at the museum explained that local government agencies are developing plans to restore the Salton Sea and, hopefully, entice developers to the area as tourism increases.  But the plan is very expensive, so government support is slow to develop.

We continued our drive down the coast to visit a place called Slab City.  But that’s a subject for the next blog . . .

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2 Responses to The Salton Sea

  1. Deb Dominick says:

    I think that RV park looks perfect. Are you staying there?

  2. Marsha says:

    Isn’t that road a hoot! We didn’t meet Jennie. Sounds like she knows her stuff about that Sea.
    We totally missed the Yacht Club. How did we do that? Crazy!
    Do you think it is a bit dusty there at Bombay Beach? Holy Cow…how can they stand all that sand? Reminds me of Midland, TX…worst place on Earth!
    Be sure to walk on one of the beaches at the Salton Sea. Nothing but small pieces of shell…have your shoes on.

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