Why The Salton Sea Has Turned From Tourist Hotspot To Toxic, Eggy Dustbowl

California's Salton Sea is killing off local birds and fish. Oh, and it stinks of rotting eggs.


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Salton Sea California state recreational area sign
The Salton Sea is a landlocked, super-salty body of water in Riverside, California. Image credit: Josh Cornish/

The Salton Sea, California's most heavily polluted lake, is rapidly turning into toxic dust. Once a popular tourist spot, this troubled body of water is rapidly receding, upping the concentration of salt and chemicals in the remaining water.

The landlocked “sea” was created by accident in the opening years of the 20th century when irrigation canals from the Colorado River spilled over, causing the valley to flood with water. 


The body of water remained, fuelled by continued agriculture run-off from the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It even became a playground in the desert, attracting many tourists from around the state. 

However, the lake quickly fell on hard times. Shrinking water levels have seen the Salton Sea turn into a dry lakebed coated in a thin layer of super-salty toxic water, killing off local wildlife and causing respiratory problems for local residents. That’s not to mention the terrible smell of rotting eggs caused by elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide in the shrinking waters. 

“It is an environmental catastrophe,” Juan S Acero Triana, a hydrologist from the University of California - Riverside, said in a statement 

Acero Triana and his colleague Hoori Ajami recently carried out a study on why the landlocked Salton Sea has been suffering so severely in recent decades. By looking at the water inflows of the lake, they determined that a reduction in Colorado River flow is the reason for that shrinking.


“There is less water coming from the Colorado River into the Sea, and that is driving the problem,” explained Ajami.

The plight of the Salton Sea was previously put down to climate change and baking heat. Some have also speculated whether advances in farming mean less water is being fed down the irrigation canals. For now, the direct cause of the problem remains unclear.

“It’s not entirely clear, however, whether the decline in Colorado River water is more due to global warming drying out the river, or reductions in allocation levels to California, or both,” Acero Triana added.

However, the Salton Sea isn’t the only body of water in the US that’s facing trouble. Earlier this year, it was reported that the level of Great Salt Lake in Utah dropped below the October 2021 historic low elevation


As this latest research shows, the Salton Sea is yet another victim of the wider ecological changes impacting the US and beyond. 

“Usually, the Sea is considered an independent system, and a watershed-centric approach considering surface and groundwater resources is needed to find a solution,” Ajami said. “As the environmental risks of a shrinking Sea mount, all parties must work together to mitigate the danger.”

The new study was published journal Water Resources Research.


  • tag
  • climate change,

  • environment,

  • lake,

  • California,

  • Salton Sea,

  • aridification