The Salton Sea: Life and Death in an Inland Ocean

For more than a thousand years, the Salton Sea in southeastern California has been home to the largest body of water in the state. It is there because the San Andreas Fault is tearing southern California apart and the bottom is dropping out. Three hundred years ago, it was Lake Cahuilla, a freshwater lake, but changing geology, the whims of the Colorado River, and the negative side of extensive, industrial agriculture have resulted in a very salty and polluted sea.

Learning Objective

Students will learn about the Salton Sea in Southern California.

Social Studies Standards

People, Places & Environments: E, F, G

Discussion Prompts

  • What caused the once thriving Salton Sea to die, and could this have been prevented? What factors have caused the Salton Sea to become toxic?
  • How was the Salton Sea formed and why? Explain the shifting geology of this area that created the sea.
  • Why was the Salton Sea referred to as an “aquatic playground” in the 1950’s? What has happened to the area since then?
  • You are a visitor from 200 years in the future. Share how the Salton Sea will be different than it is now and why it will have changed. What will the land be like at this time and why?

Lesson Activities

  • Write a true story from the point of view of the Salton Sea. Include its history from its creation to current times.
  • You are a marine biologist researching marine life that used to live in the Salton Sea. Create a social action plan that you present to a partner. Explain what factors created a positive environment, and what factors created a negative environment?
  • Create a timeline from the creation of the Salton Sea to current times. Show dates that mark important geological, ecological, and recreational events and changes.
  • You have been hired as the director of a project to improve the conditions of the Salton Sea, including helping people and animals who live in this area. You can hire four people to assist you. Write four different job postings including titles and a description of each role.


  • acquainted
  • basin
  • cacophony
  • circumnavigate
  • fault
  • irrigation
  • pollutants
  • residue
  • stench
  • vistas


In the Americas Season 10 Lesson Episode 5