Often described as the only man-made mistake visible from space, the story of Salton Sea dates back to the end of the late 1890s when a Californian developer named Charles Rockwood decided to divert part of the Colorado River through two channels and bring water to the dry but fertile desert of the Imperial Valley. In June 1905, however, unusually strong floodwaters overwhelmed one of the channels and gushed into the valley, located 285 feet below sea level. Bringing the flood under control took a presidential order by Teddy Roosevelt and two years of work by 1,500 men, by which time the Salton Sea, the largest inland body of water in California, had accidentally been created.
Fish were introduced to the sea, and, thanks to water recreation opportunities and the waterfowl attracted to the area, by the 1920s the Salton Sea developed into a tourist attraction. By the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a greater tourist draw than Yosemite National Park, enjoying particular popularity among the rich and famous. The likes of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys all made appearances, and the Salton Sea quickly becoming known as a speedboating, fishing and water-skiing playground.
The lack of an outflow means that the Salton Sea is a system of accelerated change; and as with any lake without an outlet, the Salton Sea soon became increasingly salty. By 1960 California’s Fish and Game Commission announced that it feared the Salton Sea would be dead within fifteen years. The saline levels spawned an algal bloom—a sudden increase in phytoplankton algae—that had a pungent smell, and large quantities of dead fish washed up with increasing frequency on the shore. By the late 1970s most of the resorts—and tourists—were history, also as a consequence of frequent and dramatic fluctuations in the water level. By 1986, California announced that the consumption of fish caught in the Salton Sea should be restricted for fear of their toxicity levels.