The strange story of the Salton Sea
Developers first envisioned using the Colorado River for irrigation on a large scale in southern California in the 1890s. Charles Rockwood, an irrigation engineer (though not, as we shall see, a very good one), with the financial backing of fellow engineer George Chaffey, built a crude wooden canal to irrigate the Colorado Desert and unleash the potential of its fertile soil. Water flowed along this canal for the first time in 1901, and by 1904 their project had attracted thousands of farming families.
But the plan to irrigate the Imperial Valley went awry. In 1904, the waterway filled up with sediment. In 1905, the Colorado River flooded and cut through a new canal hurriedly built to circumvent the first. The mighty river began pouring — as it had in ages past — into a shallow, low-lying basin in the Imperial Valley known as the Salton Sink, which became today’s Salton Sea — a large saline lake. By November 1905, the Colorado River was emptying entirely into the Imperial Valley instead of the Gulf of Mexico! Furthermore, the river was rapidly eroding the sandy soil and drastically altering its course.