Salton Sea, California, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - California - Desert -

Also known as:  Salton Lake

Salton Sea, sometimes called Salton Lake, is an inland saline lake located in southern California along the Mexican border. Though hard to believe, the creation of one of the world’s largest inland seas was an accident: in 1905, flooding of the Colorado River caused water to flow through the canal barriers for over 18 months. Instead of river waters irrigating the below-sea-level Imperial Valley, the Colorado River waters filled up the Salton Trough. The result is the largest lake in California, 360 square miles of average surface area and 110 miles of shoreline. Finally, in 1907 the river waters were re-directed back into Imperial Valley irrigation and the Gulf of California.

The Salton Sea has no outlets. The original fresh water from the Colorado River evaporated quickly in the desert heat. Inflow is mainly agricultural run-off from the New, Alamo, and Whitewater Rivers, carrying salt from the Colorado River. Today, the Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

The Salton Sea is now a diverse habitat ideal for many species of wildlife and tempting to many visitors seeking a bit of water-based enjoyment. Nature lovers, bird watchers, hikers, and bikers will not only find hours of enjoyment along the shores of the Salton Sea, but will also be amazed at the hundreds of bird species flying above their heads, many fish swimming beneath the lake’s surface, and thousands of animals that make these wetlands their home.

Over the last few hundred years, a staggering 90 percent of California wetlands have been lost – what in 1780 totaled 5 million acres dwindled to only 450,000 acres in 1999. Because of this sad reality, the Salton Sea has become a refuge to many of the state’s refugee wildlife. In fact, the lake is home to 40 percent of the United State’s Yuma clapper rail, 80 to 90 percent of American white pelicans, and 90 percent of the eared grebe.

The Salton Sea faces ecological challenges. Some studies conclude that the water is too salty, that the lake is too rich in nutrients, that there are times when the lake lacks the necessary oxygen, and that there is far too much green algae (which sometimes makes it smell). Animals die for unexplained reasons, and scientist are largely baffled by some of the Salton Sea’s most pressing problems. However, information is varied and opinions are strong, so if these issues are important to you, do your research and read many different opinions.

The Salton Sea Authority is a joint powers agency chartered by the State of California in 1993 to ensure the beneficial uses of this inland lake. Since 2002 the Authority has been working on a Salton Sea Integrated Water Management Plan to restore and revitalize the Salton Sea. While preserving the lake’s function as an agricultural water depository, the Authority’s objectives include stabilizing salinity, managing water quality, controlling water levels and preserving shoreline, improving wildlife habitats, and optimizing economic growth in the region.

Despite the recurring issues, the lake is a hub for outdoor activity and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors to its shores each year. Begin your trip at the Salton Sea State Park, the most oft-visited recreational area at the lake. The park’s Visitor Center schools you in the basics of the park, and then lets you out into the green wilds to enjoy miles of trails, picnicking, fishing, incredible bird watching, and under-the-stars camping.

An annual pilgrimage for many birdwatchers, the Salton Sea is home to around 400 different species of birds. To put that number in perspective, only 900 species of birds live within the entire United States. Clearly, the lake is one of the most diverse bird habitats many will ever experience. In fact, during the winter migration, it’s said that over 4 million birds are said to rest here each day. The most common birds you’ll see are American avocets, black-necked stilts, Canada geese, eared grebes, green-winged teal, and snow geese, though a wide variety of other waterfowl, migrating birds, and endangered species also live at the lake. For the best bird watching, head to the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,200-acre protected area.

Anglers will be more than excited by the prospect of fishing at Salton Lake. Believed by some to be the most productive fishery in the world, this inland sea teems with gulf croaker, ocean corvina, sargo, and tilapia, among others. Five’s the limit on corvina (sea bass), ranging in size from 5 to a whopping 37 pounds. Possibly the lake’s most populous fish, tilapia, almost beg to be caught, and most fishermen leave the lake with at least 100 tilapia in tow. Without a doubt, the Salton Sea will not disappoint an avid angler. As always, make sure to get a California fishing license before you get here, as you can’t fish without it. Anglers should follow the California Sport Fish Consumption Advisories (see link below).

While you’re at the lake, you owe it to yourself to take a boat out and explore, if only for the day. The Salton Sea has been home to boat races since 1928, partly due to the lake’s reputation as the fastest lake in the country. The combination of high salt content and low elevation (average 220 feet below sea level) make boats more buoyant and allow engines to operate at optimum power and performance. With these unique conditions and the beauty of the Salton Sea all around you, a day out on the lake is one that is enjoyed by all.

The Salton Sea has an incredibly unique ecosystem and many activities to fill your days, but it is also home to many questions and concerns. Educating yourself before your trip will not only make you an informed visitor, but will help you appreciate and enjoy everything that you see and do at California’s largest lake.

Things to do at Salton Sea

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Swimming
  • Camping
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Wildlife Refuge
  • State Park

Fish species found at Salton Sea

  • Bass
  • Tilapia

Salton Sea Photo Gallery

Salton Sea Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Saltwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 240,640 acres

Shoreline Length: 110 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): -227 feet

Average Depth: 30 feet

Maximum Depth: 51 feet

Water Volume: 7,500,000 acre-feet

Drainage Area: 7,851 sq. miles

Trophic State: Eutrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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