The Warning Lights Are Flashing for California’s Once-Glorious Salton Sea

Since this giant salty lake in the desert lost its water supply, its bird habitat has been shrinking and more toxic dust is wafting up from its dry lake bed. Can the Salton Sea be saved?

Credit: Sean Rohde/Flickr

The identity of Southern California’s Salton Sea has whipsawed between obscurity and fame over the past century. Straddling Coachella and Imperial Counties and less than 100 miles from the Mexican border, its shores are dotted with mostly abandoned towns, its beaches littered with bones from fish die-offs, and the air redolent of sulfur. But the sea—really a giant inland saline lake—was once a vibrant place. In the 1950s it was even a playground for Hollywood stars.

The story of the Salton Sea’s decline is a classic American tale of overreach and excess, mismanagement and neglect, and today its neighboring humans and wildlife are paying the price. But luckily, the sea has no dearth of allies fighting for its return to good health.

How did the Salton Sea arrive at its current strange incarnation? Throughout recent geological history there has existed, off and on, a body of water that the region’s native Cahuilla people successfully fished. This sometime lake was fed by the Colorado River when the river’s mouth meandered north as it followed a natural dip in the topography. Lake Cahuilla, as this precursor was known, was larger than the current Salton Sea—until it completely dried up around the mid-1800s when the river’s mouth moved south.

By 1900, railroad barons were looking for ways to maximize profits by developing newly accessible tracts of western land. The California Development Company, funded by Union Pacific Railroad head Edward Harriman, saw potential in the Imperial Valley’s alluvial soils—rich with river sediments—that lay across the old Lake Cahuilla basin and beyond. To transform it into farmland, the company brought in irrigation by diverting the flow of the Colorado River. The project was a financial success—cotton, barley, melons, and other fruits grew plentifully there until 1905, when an extra-heavy spring river flow breached the irrigation engineering. It took two years to repair and resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.

A view of the Salton Sea, surrounded by farmland and desert sands.
Credit: NASA

The Sea’s Heyday―and Downfall

For decades following, the sea was replenished via the inefficient irrigation of desert farmlands, which drained to the basin. As California paved over its wetlands in the name of development, migrating birds adjusted their routes, choosing the Salton Sea as a new stopover point to rest and refuel on fish that the state’s Department of Fish and Game stocked for recreational anglers.

A building boom and celebrity visitors brought the sea fame and popularity and helped make it a new vacation destination in the desert: a beautiful blue mistake under always-sunny skies that everyone could enjoy.

Over the course of the 20th century, Americans streamed west—and as the region started to run out of water for people, there was also less for the Salton Sea. Irrigation became more efficient, and the sea began facing a series of issues: Increased salinity and pollution from the agricultural runoff led to fish die-offs and algal blooms. The sea began to shrink. In the 1990s conservationists (with the help of Congressman Sonny Bono) launched a serious effort to save the Salton Sea for the people who lived there as well as some 400 species of birds who depended on it.

In December 2017, adding insult to injury, the Salton Sea area received its last allotment of water from the Colorado River after a 15-year grace period ended. Back in 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District had sold part of its water rights to feed the needs of a growing San Diego and there was nothing left for the sea.

Communities and Wildlife in Distress

“When the lake recedes and the lake bed, or playa, is exposed, the wind dries the sediment and it becomes airborne dust,” says Frank Ruiz, director of Audubon California’s Salton Sea Management Program. That dust “exacerbates the asthma rates that are already the highest in California,” he adds, affecting a predominantly low-income community of color made up mostly of Latinos, many of whom are farmworkers. Imperial County has the state’s highest rate of emergency room visits associated with respiratory distress—double the state rate for children aged 5 to 17.

Desiccated fish and barnacles along the Salton Sea shore.
Credit: Tom Grundy/Alamy

When the desert winds whip up that dust, they are also sending into the air decades of agricultural pollutants that were embedded in the sediments, including pesticides like DDT as well as heavy metals. The exact composition of the dust is still being studied, but scientists at the University of California, Riverside, have shown that more exposed playa means more dust—a threat that will only increase now that the sea’s water supply has been cut off.

Luis Olmedo, executive director of the local nonprofit group Comité Cívico Del Valle, which focuses on environmental justice issues in the rural California border region and beyond, has called the health situation a crisis. His group oversees 40 air quality monitors that track dust levels across the Imperial Valley. When conditions arise that could impact respiratory health, the group notifies schools and other community organizations.

“The clock is ticking for the people—and the birds as well,” says Ruiz. The dying sea is affecting not only the families of farmworkers and others who live year-round along the sea’s sometimes smelly shores, but also retirees who are drawn in winter to the small towns surrounding the sea. These seasonal residents provide a small but real economic boost to the struggling area. Meanwhile, restoration investment has been stalled for a decade while the state has worked on a final plan.

Audubon, the Sierra Club, local NGOs, Loma Linda University, and the California Institute for Rural Studies have formed a working group to address the challenges the Salton Sea faces. Among their concerns are the loss of nesting sites and feeding grounds for the sea’s many winged residents and passersby. Dr. Milt Friend of the Salton Sea Science Office has called the waterbody the “crown jewel of avian biodiversity.” Some birds are permanent inhabitants, and some use it as a winter home or nesting site. Others, like the ruddy duck and the cinnamon teal, use it as an important stopover on the Pacific Flyway; it is one of the few remaining wetlands along the route from the Arctic and Canada to Mexico and South America.

A flock of snow geese winters at the Salton Sea.
Credit: Andrew Haliburton/Alamy

The receding shorelines, as well as increasing salinity, also spell bad news for the fish that live in the Salton Sea, including the endemic pupfish—which in turn further affects the birds who eat them. “Three iconic birds that have used the Salton Sea in large numbers—the American avocet, the eared grebe, and the American white pelican—have all seen significant declines,” says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. Ninety percent of California’s eared grebe population winters at the Salton Sea, but Jones notes that this past winter they were virtually absent. Scientists are trying to figure out where those millions of grebes went, but it’s likely they skipped an important refueling at the Salton Sea and arrived at their breeding grounds hungry and depleted.

Not all birds have suffered, though. So far, shorebirds like the western and least sandpipers, marbled godwit, greater yellowlegs, and long-billed curlew seem to thrive on the exposed playa mud and the brine flies that it provides, and their numbers are still healthy, according to Jones.

A Path Forward

In April, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat representing Coachella in the state legislature, working with Governor Jerry Brown and representatives from the local Salton Sea Authority, secured funding for a $280 million plan, the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP), to address the public health issues, the needs of birds, and the concerns of local residents. According to Bruce Wilcox of the California Natural Resource Agency, the idea is to build a “smaller, more sustainable” Salton Sea by creating a number of shallow ponds that would help to reduce the area of exposed playa and get the dust under control. These ponds are currently being excavated; in order to help the birds, they will need to have deep spots where fish can reproduce and birds can dive. “The plan creates an ark for these animals and gives them a chance,” says Kerry Morrison, a resident of Salton City and president of the West Shores Chamber of Commerce.

Also, in June the voters of California approved Proposition 68, which provides an additional $200 million in funding for the Salton Sea plan, as part of a $4 billion allocation for statewide parks and water projects. “That won’t all come in one year,” says Wilcox, “but it’s a bond and the money is there. We can move forward with more of the project than we originally thought.”

Future bills already in the works might provide even more funds. Of course the Salton Sea conservation allies welcome this, but Ruiz says money is only part of the solution. What’s still needed, he adds, is “commitment and compromise.” Right now, one of the challenges slowing the project is an easement issue—a tension between a local irrigation district and the state, which is working to preserve water rights for further geothermal power development along the south shore. Ruiz notes the negotiations over this aspect of the plan have led to delays that are worsening the public health crisis.

Olmedo shares Ruiz’s concern. “They’re ignoring how these delays affect the health of the low-income, disadvantaged communities surrounding the Salton Sea,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

As climate change continues to shrink the West’s water supply, one could consider the story of the Salton Sea a glimpse into our collective environmental future, a cautionary tale writ small. As bulldozers dig ponds and create wetlands, the state’s Natural Resources Agency is now contemplating importing water to the Salton Sea, potentially from the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific. It’s a strange outlook for a place whose origins were equally so.

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