The Salton Sea was never meant to exist.
But it did.
For decades, it served as a gorgeous holiday resort, attracting massive crowds of tourists every year (more than the Yosemite Valley!).
But all it offers today is a bleak, desolate landscape and its level of toxicity deters anyone to tread anywhere near.
So what happened? If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick rundown.
New rivers and a new lake
California is dry as hell.
Farmers need a reliable source of water and the conditions weren’t much different at the beginning of the 20th century.
To be able to cope with the hot desert climate of the Imperial Valley, they were looking to tap into the Colorado River to irrigate their crops.
To help them out, the California Development Company decided to dredge two intake gorges. But without the use of floodgates.
And, as history shows, that was a grave human engineering error.
Courtesy of NBC
The canal’s levees were simply too small to handle flood waters. What’s more, the intakes soon became clogged with silt deposits from the Colorado River and the water stopped flowing.
In 1905, heavy rainfall combined with snowmelt broke through the canal’s headworks. The unstoppable flow of water from the Colorado River gave birth to new rivers now called the New River and Alamo.
These rivers took the water into the Salton Sink area. And it took almost two years to create what we now know as the Salton Sea.
Nonetheless, the area rose into prominence in the ’50s as a new vibrant tourist site and also saw a boom in recreational fishing with harbors and vacation homes dotting its sandy beaches.
But the heyday couldn’t last.
Just a few decades later, the golden age of the Salton Sea was inevitably coming to close.
The lake was dying — and animals couldn’t stand it, either. The ever-increasing salinity and heavy pollution wiped off most fish and bird species, turning the lake into a completely barren wasteland.
The environmental catastrophe was starting to take its toll.
And if you think this sad story can’t get any sadder, get ready to enter the surreal.
Courtesy of Still Unfold
When nature goes nuts
In 1928, the Salton Sea came in very handy. The Congress was looking for a place to deposit agricultural wastewater and they choose the manmade to become a repository for this runoff — something that’s still taking place today.
Unfortunately, this decision only sped up the process of turning a popular pleasure hotpot into a merciless death trap.
The Salton Sea became 35% saltier than the ocean and even the most salt-loving animal species couldn’t spawn any longer.
The lake was toxic, with fish dying in large masses because of oxygen starvation caused by overabundant algae.
It was no longer a place to live, it was a place to suffer.
Courtesy of NBC News
Air pollution soon became an issue, too. The wind has been kicking up the dust — which contains toxic pesticides — from its increasingly exposed playa and taking it to neighboring human settlements and even farther.
And the result?
Imperial County is now battling with the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state.
The lake’s also been burping up hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by the decaying organic matter trapped beneath the water. The rotting carcasses and decaying algae make the lake’s rotten-egg stench unbearable.
This smell can travel for quite a bit and it’s been reported to have reached Los Angeles — which is over a hundred miles away!
Courtesy of NBC News
A mistake of a lake
Like infamous Chernobyl (arguably even worse employee fail of the century), the Salton Sea Accident devastated a vast area of land and maimed lives of its inhabitants.
Sure, there are surely hundreds of other such places across the world where ecosystem nightmares have resulted from humankind’s rush to come up with short-term solutions to complex problems such as coping with severe drought or taming nuclear energy.
To see more examples of when engineering goes wrong, check out China’s outrageous Three Gorges Dam project displacing over a million people. Or Mexico’s wind farms irrevocably changing lives of indigenous people and flooding farmers’ crops.
But the infamous time-bomb amid California drought is something different. It teaches us the hard way to measure twice and cut once. To think ahead and do things properly.
This speaks to everyone, from waterworks builders to IT engineers and healthcare workers. And while the decisions in our nine-to-five jobs might not impact the lives of whole generations of people, we need to become responsible for our everyday actions — be it work-related or not.
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