salton sea

Salton Sea: California’s Largest Lake

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“Where are you going next?” The doctor asked me.

“Niland…it’s right next to the Salton Sea,” I replied.

“It stinks down there,” she informed me.

salton sea

This conversation took place in Lake Isabella, California. We were leaving in a few days to stay at the Fountain of Youth RV Resort for a month, and I was getting in a regular check-up with a doctor in town before we left.

Her proclamation confused me, because I always do my research before we stay somewhere new. I Google things. I read reviews. Not a single complaint from anyone staying at the Fountain of Youth that it was smelly. The doctor then qualified her response saying she’d been there many years ago, and maybe it wasn’t so bad anymore.

Off to the Salton Sea to find out for ourselves

I hadn’t had time to research the Salton Sea itself, nor did I have time before we left, because an incoming snowstorm forced us to pack up and leave early.

As we got closer, I kept waiting for the smell, but it never came. I just saw a huge lake, sparkling in the sun. As we drove next to it I opened my window and inhaled deeply, and smelled nothing.

salton sea

No smell here!

We arrived at the RV resort, and there was no smell either.

Once we arrived I finally did some research into the Salton Sea. What is now the sea is a basin that lies on top of the San Andreas fault. For those not familiar with California earthquake history, the fault runs for about 800 miles through California. San Andreas is the one that struck San Francisco in 1906 and left it in ruins. Presumably, the fault at some point created the rift that now holds the sea.

Over millions of years the area has alternated between dry land and covered in water. But in 1904ish (or 1905, depending on which resource you look at), an overloaded dam broke and for the next 18 months the Colorado River flooded the basin, forming the Salton Sea.

salton sea

Late-afternoon view of the Salton Sea from the lower camping areas of the Fountain of Youth RV Resort

It isn’t actually a Sea

It’s a lake. It’s the largest lake in California, with an estimated surface area of 365 square miles. But it has a very high saline content, and the salinity keeps on rising.

Its salinity rises because there were already deposits of salt in the area. Also, there is no outlet for the Salton Sea’s water. It flows in, but can only leave through evaporation. As with any salty water, when it evaporates it leaves the salt behind. Current estimates are that this lake is about 1.5 times saltier than the ocean.

It doesn’t help that for many years the sea has collected irrigation runoff from local farmland, including more mineral deposits (including salt).

Does it smell?

The short answer is–if you are close enough, yes there is a bad smell. The smell may be partially agricultural byproducts and dead plants and animals–because unfortunately, with water so salty, fish and other animals cannot survive. The Fish and Game Department has been stocking the sea with fish for years. Unfortunately a lot of them have died off due to poor water oxygenation. Dying fish means the birds suffer too.

We did not smell the sea the whole time we stayed in that area. The Fountain of Youth Spa is only 5-6 miles away from the shoreline. We rode our bikes up to about a mile from the shoreline (the closest we could get from that point) and could not smell anything.

However, a fellow Instagram RVer, who parked very close to the sea at a boondocking spot, said it smelled bad when she worked outside on her jewelry making. But not inside her RV.

Before we left the area, we stopped by Bombay Beach, which is right on the water. We could smell the sea from there.

Bombay Beach

It made me so sad to see Bombay Beach. There used to be a grocery store there, but it closed. So did almost every other business there. I think they have a bar and a restaurant left, and that’s it. The rest of the place looks kind of like a war zone. I took footage, but I feel that it’s too painful to watch, so I choose not to pass it along.

Bombay Beach is typical of the area. Many resort-towns were built along the Salton Sea’s shores, but they have mostly died out along with the ecosystem.

The good news is that the area may still turn around. The Salton Sea Authority, a collaboration between four local agencies including Imperial County and Riverside County, developed a revitalization plan.

As you may remember from my post about the Fountain of Youth Spa, the area has many natural hot springs. According to the Salton Sea Authority, the Salton Sea area has the world’s largest geothermal energy production. There is also great potential for solar energy production, biofuel production (the sea is overgrown with algae), and potentially the world’s largest source of Lithium.

A partnership between a geothermal production company and a company that owns Lithium extraction technology are working to build their plants in the area, using solar power to help run their plants. They expect the facilities may come online as early as 2021, reports the Desert Sun newspaper on February 10th.

salton sea

The Salton Sea at sunset

The Salton Sea has been a source of intrigue and controversy for many years. My pictures don’t do it justice, but you can view a very short (less than 7 minutes long) film produced about the area. It’s sad, but better than anything I can create with my limited technology. Scroll to the bottom of the page to view it.

Before you go….



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