Silly Engineers Create Massive Recreational Area in Southern CA

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I’d like to kick off my self-labeled “Water Week” with a historical tale about the potential hazards of allowing civil engineers to move rivers around.  In grade school, I remember hearing about a big sea in Southern California, the Salton Sea.  Its name sounded distinguished and venerable.  I always thought it held the non-evaporated water and denizens of some ancient body of ocean water.   However, up until 1905, it was a dry depression, an ancient sea bed in the stark desert of southern California between Palm Springs and Yuma, AZ.

Silly Engineers Create Massive Recreational Area in Southern CA

Enter the civil engineers, with great intentions of trying to provide irrigation water for southern California and western Arizona.  In the process of diverting the Colorado River for crop irrigation, they managed to allow some key levees to breach, creating massive flows of fresh water across miles of desert landscape.  The majority of Colorado River flow dumped into the ancient sea basin for over a year between 1905 and 1907.  I’m sure that was an exciting day at work for them, and a bad day for any downstream farmers who depended on river water access.

As a result of water’s ambition to flow downhill and seek its own level, we now have the Salton Sea, which is about 35 miles long, 15 miles wide, and 30 feet deep on average.  They were finally able to stop the river flow by placing enormous masses of rock and earth across the water’s route.  Apparently, the diverted river had cut through and destroyed a section of the Southern Pacific rail line, which became a convenient dumping-off point for the mitigating earthworks project.  These days the Salton Sea is being put to good use as a recreational area, and it contains a thriving tilapia fishery.  So maybe the guys who built it just had good foresight.

In my next blog and Friday’s article, we’ll explore a few other water diversion projects.  There’s a world-wide water shortage, and moving people into arid regions that become thriving metropolises inspires some pretty amazing engineering feats.  Overseas, the Chinese are part-way through a massive and controversial project, diverting flow from the Yangtze River 800 miles away to dryer regions in northern China.  In the United States, Phoenix, AZ has a water life-line that flows from Lake Havasu on the California border (it seems we did eventually achieve some success in diverting the Colorado River) known as the Central Arizona Project.  The Central Arizona Project is a remarkable aqueduct with tunnels and will be discussed further on Friday in our article We Might Have a Drinking Problem, when we take a brief look at U.S. water usage and infrastructure.

Andrew Kimos

Andrew Kimos completed the civil engineering programs at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (B.S. 1987) and the University of Illinois (M.S. 1992) and is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Wisconsin. He served as a design engineer, construction project manager, facilities engineer, and executive leader in the Coast Guard for over 20 years. He worked as a regional airline pilot in the western U.S. before joining the team as Operations Channel Producer.

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