California’s Drying Lakes, past and present: Salton Sea & Tulare Lake

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A report in the NYT today discusses the drying of California’s biggest lake, the Salton Sea. 

The Salton is a modern creation in place of what was once Lake Cahuilla, where Native Americans fished and camped. The area was flooded by water from the Colorado River after a canal burst in the early 1900s. Thus the Salton Sea was born, eventually becoming a tourist destination.

Like the Dead Sea, runoff, evaporation, and drought has caused the Salton Sea to have very high salinity; and like the Dead Sea, the Salton is, um, dying.

This has happened before. Many 19th century maps of California show a massive Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley. At this time, the Tulare was the biggest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. In large part because its tributaries were diverted for agricultural use, the Tulare dried up in the first half of the 20th century.

Here are some 19th century maps that depict the Tulare and a postal map from 1954 in which it is gone completely: