Bureaucracy, made up entirely of petty minds, stands as an obstacle to the prosperity of the nation; delays for seven years, by its machinery, the project of a canal which would have stimulated the production of a province.”—Honoré de Balzac

When my father first took me to the Salton Sea 55 years ago, it was one of the most popular recreational areas in Southern California with almost as many visitors as Yosemite.  But over the years the vast inland sea has been used as a sump for the polluted leachings of local irrigation districts, causing the once plentiful birds and fish to die.

Today, the Salton Sea is experiencing an environmental meltdown.  It is already 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.  If a solution is not forthcoming soon, the sea and everything that depends on it—fish, migratory waterfowl, and the region's economy—will be dead.  The time for environmental studies and reports has run out—either we begin saving the sea now or there soon will be nothing left to save.  In the summer months of June, July, and August, 2000, 413 brown pelicans (an endangered species) died.  With over 90 percent of California's wetlands gone, these birds are increasingly dependent upon the Salton Sea.  When 2 million fish, mostly tilapia, died on August 27-28, the shoreline quickly became a putrefying, malodorous mass of carcasses rotting in 120 degree heat and 75 percent humidity.

Formed by accident between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through shoddily constructed irrigation gates south of Yuma, Arizona, the Salton Sea lies within Riverside and Imperial counties near the U.S./Mexico border in southeastern California  Nearly the entire output of the raging Colorado flowed into the Salton Basin for several years, inundating communities, farms, Indian reservations, and the Southern Pacific railway.  Flooding was finally checked in 1907 by a dike built by railcars dumping boulders into the onrushing waters.  By then, the Salton Sea was about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide.

The Salton Sea is currently 35 miles by 15 miles and has been as long as 40 miles by 20 during a period when the Mojave Desert got an unusually large amount of rain.  It has an average depth of 29.9 feet and, at its deepest location, is 51 feet.  The sea contains 7.1 million acre feet of water, 1.3 million acre feet of which evaporates annually.  A five-mile-long trench on the south end of the Salton Sea forms its deepest point.  Approximately 220 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea lies only thirteen feet above Death Valley, the lowest spot in North America.

Irrigation runoff from farms in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and two streams—the Alamo River and the New River—feed the Salton Sea.  There is a danger that impending legislation will transfer some of the local farmers’ share of Colorado River water to San Diego developers which studies show would make the shoreline recede by more than a mile.

The New River originates just south of Mexicali, Mexico, and picks up agricultural pesticides, dead cats, industrial wastes, and human excrement as it flows north.  A recent report by the California Water Resources Control Board found that Mexicali is dumping 20 to 25 million gallons of raw sewage into the New River daily because of breakdowns in its municipal treatment system.  By the time the New River crosses the U.S./Mexico border near Calexico, California, the river violates water quality standards by several hundred-fold.  Border Patrol agents who have jumped into the toxic flow to rescue drowning immigrants have had to be treated for skin rashes and infections.  The New River is a caustic cocktail whose ingredients include 26 viruses—hepatitis A and polio to name a few—assorted pesticides from Mexican farms (some of which have been banned in the United States), together with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals from maquiladora factories.

A recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control noted that California has twice the rate of infections of two food-borne pathogens associated with human sewage, campylobacter and shigella, than any other state.  Still, state and federal legislators are reluctant to do what is necessary to clean up the pollution.  Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is paying 55 percent of a $50 million addition to Mexicali's sewage treatment facility, it has yet to tackle the pollution which has already been carried across the border and deposited in the Salton Sea.  Fecal coliform is at levels of 100,000 to 5 million colonies per milliliter at the border checkpoint, far above the U.S.-Mexico treaty limit of 240 colonies.  The New River is so heavily polluted that technicians usually wear two sets of gloves and other protective clothing when testing the water.  However, state officials claim that contaminants in the Salton Basin do not exceed acceptable levels and pose no risk to the region's inhabitants, a large proportion of whom are senior citizens.

Because the Salton Sea has no outlet, selenium from sewage and agricultural runoff accumulates in the silt at the bottom where it is ingested by pile worms.  These worms are in turn eaten by the fish who serve as food for higher life forms—including people.  At each successive level of the food chain the selenium becomes more and more concentrated.

According to the Encyclopedia Americana, “all selenium compounds are toxic, except for copper and lead selenides. . . their. . . effects. . . resemble those of arsenic, causing lung and liver damage, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pains or cramps. . . contact with selenium or its salts may cause dermititis. . .no more than three parts per million of the element has been suggested as the safe concentration limit in foods.”

In past years, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service released joint studies in response to concern about drainwater contamination that could “pose a threat” to human beings along with fish and wildlife resources “of the Salton Sea area.” One scientific study concluded that “drainwater contaminants. . . are accumulating in tissues of migratory and resident birds that use food sources in the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea. Selenium concentrations in fish-eating birds, shorebirds. . . could affect reproduction.”

Of even greater concern is the high concentration of arsenic found in local wells.  Residents of Pioneertown and Bombay Beach are concerned about carcinogens in their drinking water.  Pioneertown, a community of 150 people west of Joshua Tree National Park, has arsenic levels as high as 82.1 parts per billion in its wells (current Environmental Protection Agency standards permit a maximum of 50 parts per billion and the Bush administration is committed to lowering the standard to 10 parts per billion by 2006).

The only practical, long range solution is to dig a sea level canal from the Laguna de Salada in Baja California to the Salton Sea.  This would keep the sea from getting any saltier and would also provide inland Southern California with a convenient port for international shipping.  Sportfishing and other recreational activities would soon return.  Marinas and luxury retirement communities would be developed along the entire length of the canal, increasing the value of desert real estate in both the United States and Mexico.  Since the Salton Sea is presently 220 feet below sea level, a connection with the Pacific Ocean would result in a vast inflow of seawater, expanding the Salton Sea's boundaries to approximately those of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the freshwater lake that filled the Salton basin as recently as 500 years ago.

Metcalf & Eddy, a Massachusetts based firm with almost a century of experience in large scale water resources management, has proposed building two canals, the largest of which would be navigable for ocean going vessels.  The cost for digging the U.S. section is estimated at $300 million, with the final pricetag for the completed canals approaching $3 billion.  While this is indeed a considerable chunk of money, it is nonetheless a good bargain, considering the increased revenue in land and commerce taxes which local governments stand to gain.

I live in Riverside, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and the Salton Sea.  Several times a day, freight trains pass through my community on their way to San Bernardino, Palm Springs, and other inland cities loaded with ocean-going containers from the Orient stacked two high on flatbed cars.  Some of these trains stretch for a mile or longer.  Of course each container means more revenue for the congested ports of Long Beach and San Pedro and higher shipping costs paid for consumer goods by the residents of inland Southern California.

Digging a canal through the desert would involve no insurmountable problems.  In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faced a considerably tougher task in constructing the Panama Canal a century ago.

famous ship canals

What's stopping us from building a sea level canal today?  All we need is the will.  Prior to his death in a tragic skiing accident, Congressman Sonny Bono was actively seeking public support for the issue.  Perhaps the Salton Sea's strongest supporter in the House of Representatives was the late Congressman George Brown whom I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago.  He was the driving force behind restoration of the sea and his death was a great loss to the Salton Sea, California, and the world.  He understood the crucial environmental role the sea plays as an intrinsic part of the Pacific Flyway.  To Congressman Brown, saving the Salton Sea was more than a regional concern of the United States and Mexico.  It was—and is—an international issue with global impact.

There are many parallels between the Salton Sea, which lies near the U.S/Mexico border and the Dead Sea, which is on the border between Israel and Jordan.  The Dead Sea is three-hundred-sixty-five meters below sea level, the lowest point on Earth.  Unless something is done soon, the Salton Sea will resemble the Dead Sea, which is so salty that it cannot support life.   The Dead Sea is shrinking by almost one meter each year.  Most of the water that flows into the Dead Sea comes from the Jordan River.  However, fresh water flowing from the Jordan River has been tapped for other uses in the area.  Environmentalists believe that within the next fifty years, the Dead Sea could shrink to less than half of its current size.  To prevent that, Israel and Jordan plan to build a pipeline more than three-hundred kilometers long.  The pipeline would pump water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.  After the pipeline is built, the two countries hope to build a canal and a salt removal system that will provide fresh water to Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians.  The pipeline will take at least three years to build and will cost a billion dollars.  Israel and Jordan plan to pay for it with aid from other countries.  The project is expected to begin after a nine-month study is completed.  The water project is seen as a major step forward towards peace in the Middle East.  Experts say the agreement sends a message that the environment, ecology and nature are more important than borders or political conflicts.  Why Israel and Jordan can do it and the United States and Mexico can't is a question that no one seems to be able to answer.


According to an article by Ben Spillman in the September 11, 2005 edition of The Desert Sun, a study financed by the Salton Sea Authority claims that the Salton Sea could support 80,000 new homes along its shores once the waters are rendered less polluted by the proposed use of dams and dikes.  The report estimates that tax revenue from development could support future improvement projects.  The Salton Sea Authority Plan calls for the construction of a dike that would divide the sea.  As proposed, there would be a shallow 135 mile lake on the north and a lesser, 35 mile lake in the south.  In other words, the once great Salton Sea would be reduced to a couple of brine lakes with no guarantee of suffient freshwater inflow to prevent them from evaporating with time.

An article by Louis Sahagan in the November 20 edition of the Los Angeles Times says that with evaporation outpacing incoming agricultural runoff, the shoreline continues to shrink.  Environmental conditions are worsening at an alarming rate.

In some places, the receding waterline has uncovered thermal fields studded with fumaroles, geysers, and boiling mud pots spewing clouds of steam and sulfur dioxide gas that smells like rotten eggs.

----- Original Message -----
From: Brian Schend
To: Fred Dungan
Sent: Saturday, April 26, 2008 10:36 PM
Subject: Salton Sea Canal

I read your article about a sea-level canal for the Salton Sea and think it's an interesting idea. However, I am unclear about some things.

It appears that you are talking about raising the Salton Sea to sea level. In this case, the entire canal would be in Mexico, since the land area is already about 40 feet below sea level at the border. This would also mean permanently flooding Mexicali, Calexico, Indio, and many other significant cities. It would also require rerouting I-10 and I-8, both which would be flooded. I-8 would require miles of bridge, since going around the sea-level Salton Sea would require going into Mexico. These extremely difficult issues are probably why this isn't being considered as an option. I'm guessing the cost estimates don't account for relocating highways, railroads and people. On the other hand, it looks from the picture that they used the entire distance to the sea, instead of the much shorter distance to be below sea level.

Another idea is a lock system. This lets you put the sea at any elevation you want. The problem is whether the evaporation rate would make up for the inflow of the canal operations. This, of course, does nothing about the increasing amounts of salt without desalination.

So, it seems a canal won't solve the problem without major impacts, that many people would consider unacceptable.

One idea no one is talking about—Stop irrigating. Salton Sea would return to its natural state (dry), restoring the Colorado delta in the process, and the problem would be solved. Of course, there are unacceptable impacts to this, too.

I look forward to your thoughts on this.

From: Fred Dungan
To: Brian Schend
Sent: Sunday, April 27, 2008 6:04 PM
Subject: Re: Salton Sea Canal


Being more than 200 feet below sea level, the Salton Sink (what it was called when it was relatively dry) is a natural sump. Long before humans arrived, the Colorado River would occasionally change channels and flow into the basin. Whether you call it Lake Cahuilla or Salton Sea, it is a natural phenomena. Environmentalists refer to it as a man-made sea because if they said anything else, they would never get another research grant from the government.

Isn't Lake Havasu man made? So are most of the reservoirs created by dams, yet nobody wants to drain them.

Prior to its 1905 reincarnation, the land below the waters was part of the Martinez-Torres reservation. Many of the fat cats who sit on the board of the Salton Sea Authority are members of the tribe who have a vested interest in draining the Salton Sea. Frankly, they lack vision. What is left of the reservation would become prime marina property if the canal was built and the area would undergo an unprecedented economic boom.

The displacement would be relatively minor as only the land that lies below sea level would be affected. You cannot build a canal (or a dam) without affecting somebody. The economic gain from tourism, increased property value, and decreased transportation costs would more than offset the initial property acquisition and construction costs.

Sea level canals have been built for centuries and do not require developing new technology. The Panama Canal was by far a bigger, costlier project. Of course, it was constucted in a “can do” age when we were concerned with long term gains rather than quarterly profits. Whatever is done, it will most likely be done with short term interests in mind. How sad. We have more resources than any other nation in the world. But instead of putting them to work, we study the issue to death, wasting taxpayer dollars on studies to which we already know the answer while the federal agencies that are supposed to solve the problem sit on their hands.

Constructing the canal would be a relatively simple no brainer. Not only would such a project pay for itself many times over, it would create a lasting economic boom on both sides of the border. Since Mexico would also benefit greatly, it would help to solve the immigration problem by largely eliminating poverty and unemployment in Baja California.


Fred Dungan

Proposed Salton Sea Authority Plan

January 1, 2023
3749 Myers Street
Riverside, CA 92503

To the Self-Serving Bureaucrats and Functionaries of the Salton Sea Authority:

The Salton Sea Authority was created by Congress to save the Salton Sea. We, the people of the United States, who pay your salaries with our tax dollars, have a right to know what is going on. Was draining the Salton Sea really the best plan you could come up with? Or did it simply suit your private purposes? Did a behind-the-scenes deal take place in which greedy San Diego developers got water meant for the sea in exchange for feathering your nests? Do you think that you can get away with destroying the very thing that you were sent on a mission to save?

Oh ye of no faith and little vision, your wicked ways are known to us. Instead of using the funds we entrusted to you to better the plight of the Salton Sea, you wasted them on redundant reports and administrative perks. The Salton Sea is dying and you want us to let you pull the plug? Is that what this has all come down to? Be off with you! If you cannot do any better than that, please have the courtesy and dignity to vacate your position so that we can appoint someone who has the ability and is motivated to come up with a solution. We expect our leaders to lead, not to spend their time and our hard earned money on making excuses for not having performed as expected. Do what you were told to do or get out! Are you brain dead? Or are you merely corrupt? I strongly suspect the latter.


Fred Dungan, property owner, Salton Sea Estates

This article was taken from Chapter 14 of Bushwhacked by Fred Dungan.  To get the complete story click here.
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This page last modified on January 1, 2023.>