Flanked by the Chocolate Mountains and the fertile green acres of California's Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea is one of the most spectacular and bizarre bodies of water in the United States. Today it is saltier than the nearby Pacific Ocean but it began life some 90 years ago as a freshwater lake. That was when the rampaging Colorado River broke loose from its channel and swung northwest, flowing into the Salton Sink, a desert basin whose center was 278 feet below sea level. In the year and more it took engineers to redirect the river, the overflow had created a "sea" 45 miles long and 17 miles wide.
Enormous heat (up to 120 degrees F in summer) and control of the inflow of Colorado water, then and now largely used to irrigate the immensely rich agriculture of the Imperial Valley, evaporated the sea somewhat it is 35 miles long now. It became a major stopover for migrating birds and a prime fishing site. In the late 1950s its sunny weather and stunning scenery drew developers, who spent millions laying down streets and pipelines for seaside resorts like Salton City and the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. But the sea kept filling up with salt and chemicals from Imperial Valley runoff. Today its salt content is so high, and getting higher, that it threatens the existence of the saltwater fish eventually stocked in it. The ambitious resorts long ago turned into near ghost towns. Recently species of birds at the sea began dying mysteriously by the thousands. A local commission is studying ways to save the sea. Whatever plans they propose will be costly and it is uncertain who will be willing to pay for them.