The Salton Sump and the Virtual Sea

Pumps and irrigation ditch adjacent to the Salton Sea, near Bombay Beach. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Salton Sea, its glory days long gone, is now a 35-mile- long growing hazard to public health for miles around, a mortal danger to the water fowl migrating on the Pacific Flyway, death to the fish that once inhabited it, but a boon to all who hustle public funds in the name of  positive solutions.

One of the largest hustlers, for example, the Salton Sea Management Program, consists of three state agencies, The California Natural Resources Agency, the California Department of Water Resources, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, so the funds stay among friends. The state has pledged about $400 million for its efforts at habitat rehabilitation over the next decade.

Brief review of the Reddish River

The Mexicans named the great red river flowing south from the Rockies across the Colorado Plateau and through the Grand Canyon in its way to Mexico, the Colorado, for its burden of reddish silt, which it deposited in a desert delta that became rich farmland on both sides of the border. But the first American attempt at a canal to irrigate this vast alluvial plan failed and for three years, Colorado River water flowed north into a depression, 250 feet below sea level, which formed the so-called Salton Sea. Irrigation developed all around the Sea and by 1920, California had declared its main purpose to be a drainage “sump” for agricultural runoff.

The Sump
Its real name, rather than its nautical sobriquet, should be the Salton Sump.

The Sump, from its beginning, has always contained a great deal more than pure H2O, but salts have been the most steadily increasing ingredient through the century-plus of its existence. The fish varieties planted in the 1920s flourished for several decades, forming a rich fishery for man and birds, but were killed off in the1960s by the salt concentration, higher than the Sea of Cortez, and by oxygen-robbing algae blooms caused by fertilizers washed through the farmland into the Sump. And with the loss of the fishery, the waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway have concentrated in smaller sections of the Sump near fresher-water inflows. The population density has caused diseases like Avian cholera to flourish and kill hundreds of thousands, to the point at which some species have disappeared from the region. The density has also fooled the public into thinking that the populations of migrating birds are larger than they actually are.

Yet, before the concentration of salts and other contaminants had overwhelmed the great lake of Colorado River water, the Sump was a resort destination for fishermen, birdwatchers, speedboaters, water skiers, party animals and real estate speculators, realtors, home builders, and, 50 years ago, had all the accoutrements of a swinging vacation community of Southern California Fun-in-the-Sunites, complete with rising property values and a growing tax base bringing silent joy to two county governments.

The desert was cool in ’62.

But then the Sump began to stink.

It then became one place in Southern California where you could lose money on a real estate investment, a violation of fundamental Southern California metaphysics.

The Merriman-Webster Dictionary stataes: “Metaphysics;  a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.”

The government arrives with a first aid kit

The federal government and California had been playing ping pong with responsibility for the Salton Sump since its birth. Now, its fetid death has been dramatic enough to shake loose promises of showers of public funds for investment in plans to “Save the Sea.” In fact, millions of public funds have already been spent just on the all-important planning process. The Death of the Salton Sump obviously requires expert professional attention to propose, dispose, certify or reject all the plans and projects responsive to all the requests for proposals that might lessen or at least conceal some of the disaster, which is the Salton Sump.

The Colorado River has been hit by a 30-year drought in addition to the steady pressure of global warming, reducing its flow and therefore reducing the water available for irrigation, causing land fallowing and the use of more effective irrigation techniques in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, which reduces the agricultural runoff going to the Salton Sump. The sun is now evaporating more water from the Sump than agricultural runoff is contributing; the Sump is shrinking, shorelines are expanding to as much as half a mile in some places; strong southeasterly winds blow highly toxic dusts into downtown Palm Springs.

Public opinion is outraged.

California established the Salton Sea Management Program. Although it is difficult to get a handle on the total amount of money being spent because it depends now and in the future on state bond initiatives, hundreds of millions have been spent planning and developing projects to create wetlands, support species, and suppress the dust, which is the main danger to the health of people living near the Sump. “The approximately 650,000 people living nearby suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, and other health issues,” according to Grist in December, 2022.


An excellent guide to assessing the value of projects meant to “fix” the Sump is H.L. Mencken’s observation: Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

A perennial project shopping for funds in this new funding cycle is conveying water from either the Sea of Cortez in Mexico or the Pacific at the Southern California coast to fill up the shrinking Sump. These are multi-billion-dollar projects, but, in the culture we are observing at work re. the Sump, the more expensive the project, the more attractive it is. The latest included a desalination plant. Reason did prevail this fall when the Sea of Cortez proposal was rejected, but that was not the first, nor do we expect it to be the last ocean-water proposal.  Creating new engineering disasters to solve the disasters of old engineering projects provides lots of jobs at public expense.
Yet, noted California field ornithologist, Guy McCaskie, told the Desert Sun recently: “We’ve got to be very close to the point where it can’t support life. And nobody’s doing anything fast enough to stop it,” McCaskie said. “I think that the cost to actually do something is so high that they’re avoiding it.”

The feds have made various pledges for both funds and water, but the immediate future of weather and politics will provide more definition. Meanwhile, although the Sump is less than 50 feet deep, it is becoming a bottomless pit for public funds. According to one published list, there are 31 federal, state, local, public, and non-profit agencies with their hands in the political economy of the Sump.

Private, for-profit-sector proposals await governmental review on mining lithium from the Sump-bed. Conspicuously absent from the public ballyhoo is discussion of the air pollution this mining would cause and where toxic byproducts would be deposited. And, in 2017, Sandia National Labs launched a project to bioengineer algae to consume toxics in the Sump. It is funded by the federal Department of Energy, but Scandia did not announce the funding amount in its press release.

Trying to keep it full as the Colorado River and the Imperial Irrigation District shrink is impossible.

Nevertheless… “Ryan Llamas, Audubon California’s Salton Sea program associate, says he is hopeful that the restoration projects will start to improve conditions at the Salton Sea. ‘It will be a good opportunity to see how humans can have a positive effect on their environment,’ he says.”

In other words, we must think positively and only positively, not about the Salton Sump, but about its virtual other, the Salton Sea of recovering real estate values, clear, unsalted waters, abundant fish and birds, happy fishermen, contented birdwatchers, bartenders, and property managers. Critical voices will not be funded.


However, the present Sump has had a demonstrably negative effect on human health for miles around, particularly for the Hispanic farmworkers, Native Americans and other low-income people who presently inhabit the shoreline communities. Yet we find this curious advertisement on the Internet:

“Affordable Housing In Niland

“Imperial County, California

“Affordable Housing programs support 294 income based apartments in Niland where households pay rent based on how much they earn.

“There are 38 affordable apartments in Niland that offer reduced rents to low-income households.””

“Salton Sea Beach, CA HUD Homes for Sale

“For a city like Salton Sea Beach, with its 655 residents, HUD homes are an increasingly viable option for those trying to move into a new home but may be feeling squeezed out of the current housing market. HUD homes are owned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and present a greater range of financing options than traditional homebuying paths. HUD homes in Salton Sea Beach aren’t just a way to get into a housing market that is already experiencing shortages, they may just be the ideal way for you. To learn more about our current HUD homes in Salton Sea Beach, CA, register today! The perfect home could be waiting for you.”

There are a lot of dirty hands in the Sump, but they aren’t washing each other.

USC, Loma Linda University, Sierra Club, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and Comité Civico del Valle, and others recently have been investigating pulmonary damage from the growing dry shores of the Sump, laden with salts, heavy metals, selenium, and pesticide residues. Loma Linda researchers are studying the health effects of toxins from algae that become dust and are blown into nearby communities.
“Something needs to be done about this,” the Loma Linda public health researcher told High Country News in October.


The other day, I stood on the dusty shore near the abandoned Salton Sea North Shore Yacht Club, next to a boat ramp ending four hundred yards from the shoreline. What most impressed me was the absence of the usual sounds of a lake – from outboard motors to birds. There is a deep hush over the blue-gray Sump. and my imagination rushed to the silent death agonies of millions of creatures killed by this body of poisonous water. I also couldn’t help thinking about the silent dread in the hearts of children and elders at the onset of an asthma attack.

After admitting the total political depravity that caused the failure to fix any aspect of the Sump, authorities should relocate at public expense everyone who lives on the Salton Sump for their own safety, and for public safety take a section of the nearby Border Wall and surround the Sump and police the wall. Do the best you can to divert the birds, realizing that the losses will continue.

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: