In the late 1850s, the area once again looked like a wasteland. But some folks saw the promise of agricultural bounty in the valley's rich sedimentary deposits, if only water could be brought there. For more than 40 years, various schemes foundered; then in 1900 a former U.S. Reclamation Service engineer formed a partnership with a civil engineer and irrigation expert named George Chaffey. Chaffey had built several successful projects near Los Angeles and in Australia, and less than 14 months after he signed on to the project, the water began to flow westward through a cut in the river near Yuma.
Chaffey turned to the next challenge: getting people to buy and farm the land. He incorporated the Imperial Land Company and began advertising. "[I]n order not to scare off settlers and small investors by using the ominous word 'desert' and 'Sink,' they changed the name of the basin that they proposed to irrigate, calling it 'The Imperial Valley,' " according to a Salton Sea history published by the Coachella Valley Historical Society. The strategy worked. By 1902, some 400 miles of irrigation ditches were in place, delivering enough water to irrigate 100,000 acres. By 1904, 10,000 pioneers had flocked to the valley. Under their cultivation, the land began yielding marvels. "Grapes, melons and garden vegetables matured in the Valley earlier than in any other part of California; barley was a profitable crop; alfalfa could be cut five or six times a year; and the finest quality of long-staple Egyptian cotton yielded more than a bale (500 pounds) to the acre," the history states. "Experiments proved also that the climate and soil were well-adapted to the culture of grapes, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, olives, figs, dates, apricots, pomegranates, peaches, and pears."
The man who had engineered this miracle fared less well. Mired in financial and legal quarrels with other members of the California Development Company, Chaffey by 1902 had sold his stock and left the enterprise. He thus wasn't on hand two years later when the young water company needed an engineering wizard's decisive leadership. Silt from the Colorado River -- the source of the Imperial Valley's fertility -- began clogging the irrigation canals and restricting the flow of water. Farmers' crops began to fail. Dredging the canals might have solved the problem, but the cash-strapped water company opted for a cheaper fix, cutting a new channel from the river four miles south of the Mexican border. The fact that they lacked permission from the Mexican government to do this didn't stop the company's directors.
It was the worst possible time to weaken the western bank of the Colorado River. The rainy season that followed unleashed two floods in February 1905, and an unprecedented third flood in March made the water company uneasy about the river's growing height. Still more inundations obliterated a couple of dams made of timber pilings, brush, and sandbags that the company had hastily thrown across the southern channel, and by mid-June, the 60-foot channel had almost tripled in width. Through this breach, the mighty Colorado thundered -- 90,000 cubic feet of water per second racing across the valley to collect in the Salton Sink.
The inflow drowned hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland, and the water kept rising. Several attempts in 1905 to return the river to its original course failed, and another flood the following year sent a ten-mile-wide deluge toward Calexico and Mexicali. When the Southern Pacific Railroad's main line east from Los Angeles was threatened, the transportation giant added its muscle to the fight, but even this was almost no match for the power of the river. Toward the end of 1906, the railroad, which by then had already spent well over $2 million, mounted a final desperate effort. It sent 2057 carloads of rock, 221 carloads of gravel, and 203 carloads of clay to the riverside, dumping the materials from two trestles that had been built across the breach. Although the river ripped away the trestle pilings three times, the bank was finally restored, and the river once more began flowing to the Gulf of California.
In the valley was left behind a 76-foot-deep body of water that covered an area 45 miles long by 20 miles wide -- California's newest lake, and by far its biggest. The waters subsided by about 7 feet in 1907, but they dropped less and less in the ensuing years, and by the early 1920s, it was clear that this sea was not about to vanish, as its ancient predecessors had. In addition to the sporadic runoff from the surrounding mountains, the newly created Salton Sea enjoyed a source of aquatic bounty the valley had never seen before: the water that drained from the farmers' fields. Today that drainage amounts to approximately 1.3 million acre-feet per year. That's enough to offset the water evaporated by the broiling desert sun.
The sea's chemistry has always been fickle. Salts in the seabed began dissolving in the water almost immediately, and by 1913, the salinity was high enough to kill the fat freshwater carp and bass that had ridden in with the raging Colorado. The California Department of Fish and Game nonetheless believed that the sea could become a recreational resource, and in the late 1920s and early '30s, fishery managers began stocking it with saltwater fish and something to nourish them -- pile worms imported from San Diego Bay. The fish died, but the invertebrates thrived, and a renewed effort to jumpstart the sea as a sport fishery took place in the early 1950s. This time dozens of species were trucked in from the Gulf of California. Gulf croaker, corvina, and sargo seemed to love the place; in the years that followed, their populations exploded, and fish reached amazing proportions. Some corvina weighed more than 30 pounds.
The fishing was one reason people flocked to the Salton Sea in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Power boating was another. As early as 1929, speed records had been set in competitions there, and the sea's boosters claimed that the combination of the dense salty water and high barometric pressure made it possible to go faster than on any other body of water in America. When water-skiers joined the boaters zooming under the desert skies, a host of developers and promoters went on a spree. A dozen marinas were operating on the shores by 1963, and a $2 million yacht club constructed at North Shore Beach counted the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers among its patrons. On the western side of the sea, Desi Arnaz, Harry James, and Johnny Weissmuller practiced their swings at a championship golf course.