Salton Sea in Southern California

The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in the U.S. state of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside counties in Southern California. Its surface is 236.0 ft (71.9 m) below sea level as of January 2018. The deepest point of the sea is 5 ft (1.5 m) higher than the lowest point of Death Valley. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as agricultural runoff, drainage systems, and creeks.

Salton Lake Estimated Location: 33.300097, -115.917106

Iberia Wash near Salton City on the western shores of Salton Sea.

The area was once part of a vast inland sea that covered a large area of Southern California. Geologists estimate that for three million years, at least through all the years of the Pleistocene glacial age, a large delta was deposited by the Colorado River in the southern region of the Imperial Valley. Eventually, the delta reached the western shore of the Gulf of California, creating a barrier that separated the area of the Salton Sea from the northern reaches of the Gulf. Were it not for this barrier, the entire Salton Sink along with the Imperial Valley would be submerged as the Gulf would extend as far north as Indio.

Iberia Wash near Salton City on the western shores of Salton Sea.

Due to the high salinity, very few fish species can tolerate living in the Salton Sea. Introduced tilapia are the main fish that can tolerate the high salinity levels and pollution. Other fresh and brackish water fish species live in the rivers and canals that feed the Salton Sea, including redbelly tilapia, threadfin shad, carp, red shiner, channel catfish, white catfish, largemouth bass, mosquitofish, sailfin molly, and the vulnerable desert pupfish.

Iberia Wash near Salton City on the western shores of Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has been termed a “crown jewel of avian biodiversity” by Dr. Milt Friend of the Salton Sea Science Office. Over 400 species have been documented at the Salton Sea. The most diverse and probably the most significant populations of bird life in the continental United States are hosted, rivaled only by Big Bend National Park in Texas. It supports 30% of the remaining population of the American white pelican. The Salton Sea is also a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway. On 18 November 2006, a Ross’s gull, a high Arctic bird, was sighted and photographed there.

Iberia Wash near Salton City on the western shores of Salton Sea.

Evidence of geothermal activity is also visible. The Salton Buttes are volcanoes in the geothermal field of the same name. Mud-pots and mud volcanoes are found on the eastern side of the Salton Sea. The area is used for geothermal electricity generation, with plants located along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea in Imperial County.


Images property of Chromoscience.

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