Stand within two metres of Salton Sea and you’ll be met with the unmistakable smell of a public toilet. Upwind, downwind, it doesn’t matter; while the view from the distance might be impressive, a quick close encounter is all you need to know that something is really wrong with the water.
California’s largest lake, Salton Sea was created in the 1900s when a group of engineers accidentally flooded an ancient dry lake basin with water from the Colorado River. The water flowed for a few years before it was diverted, and the lake filled up because it had no outflow. While evaporation has at times taken some of the water away, periodic floods replenish the lake with agricultural runoff—water that has high concentrations of pesticides, fertiliser and other chemicals.
Depending on the water levels, the lake often has very high salinity levels, making it inhospitable to anything but a few species of hardy fish. Along much of the shoreline hundreds of fish skeletons can be seen, their bodies and bones gradually disintegrating into fluffy grey sand.
Salton Sea is, in essence, a gigantic polluted puddle.
It wasn’t always that way. From the 1920s, the Salton Sea area enjoyed popularity as a holiday destination. Beaches grew, resorts sprung up, and people flocked to live in the growing towns that clustered nearby.
But by the time the 1960s rolled around, pollution had begun to wreak havoc on the flora and fauna. Fish died, algae bloomed, and the lake developed a stench that must have been so much worse than the eau de public toilet of today. It became an ecological disaster.
Nowadays, though the state is working to improve the conditions around Salton Sea, there is not much left to show from its heyday—except for dusty redneck towns and some cool ruins.