The Salton Sea is a vast and misunderstood body of water located in Southern California’s Colorado desert, straddling the desert regions of both Riverside and Imperial counties. It’s saline, shallow waters lap at a shoreline covered with fish skeletons and algae that repels tourists but beckons migratory birds from afar. A scent, described by the USGS as “noxious”, “pervasive, “unique”, and “objectionable”, can be experienced along the lake shore, littered with abandoned boats and crumbling homes, a testament to the future the lake never had. The lake’s receding shoreline, surprisingly, is a natural event, connected to it’s usual geologic and meteorological birth parents, but due to modern human interventions is teetering on the brink of an ecological and healthcare disaster.
The Colorado river is not only the lifeblood of the Southwest, it is the origin of the Imperial valley’s fertile farmlands and the original source of the Salton Sea. For millions of years, flood waters have distributed sediments along the valley floors and delta of the Gulf of California (known to some as the Sea of Cortez, but in an attempt to remove the names of blood-thirsty colonizers from areas of incredible natural beauty, I will refer to it as the Gulf of California throughout this essay). The river has snaked it’s way to the gulf from Rocky mountains and hundreds of tributaries, carving and depositing new landscapes throughout the eons. For the past several thousand years, the river has flowed into the Salton basin during periods of heavy precipitation, creating massive flooding that jumps the river’s well-trodden path. Being a basin, water collects with no outlet, creating a massive, inland freshwater lake, only to slowly evaporate over time, morphing from a freshwater sea, to a salt sea, and finally into a salty dry lake bed. This lake, known as ancient Lake Cahuilla, refilled and emptied on a 400-500 year cycle, and has been doing so for the past several thousand years (Leuschner 2017). The last known occurrence of Lake Cahuilla was sometime during the 1600-1700s, as reported by the desert Cahuilla people. It’s shores were several hundred feet above the modern day shoreline, and fish traps still perch on the hills above the desert city of Indio, evidence of the livelihoods this ancient lake supported. Around the time colonizers arrived, the lake was experiencing a dry point in its lifecycle.
The 19th century damming of the Colorado river had many consequences for both the Salton basin and the Northern estuary at the Gulf of California. As the estuary began to rapidly transition from a lush ecosystem featuring habitat for dolphins and hundreds of migratory birds to a salt flat, the Salton basin’s artery was likewise cauterized forever. No longer would incredible flood events return to fill the basin, as the ferocious waters of the Colorado river were whipped and tamed into submission by concrete and steel. In 1905, the California Development Company undertook a major infrastructure project in an attempt to bring water to the fertile farmlands of the basin and began to dig channels from the Colorado River. These irrigation channels quickly filled with the rich sediments of the Colorado river; in an attempt to increase the waterflow through the channels, a cut was made into the riverbank, resulting in an overflow of water so unexpected and powerful that it overwhelmed an engineering station near Yuma, Arizona. (“Past and Present”) The floodwaters raged, uncontrolled for almost two years, refilling the Salton basin and creating the modern day, “accidental” Salton Sea, which is now California’s largest lake. While this incarnation of the Salton Sea is man-made and created through human error, it is a historic place of life amidst the rolling sand dunes.
Within the next few decades, the Salton Sea became the “new Riviera”, a favorite resort destination in the 1950’s for movie stars, celebrities, and the wealthy. Saltwater fish were planted in the sea, and homes, communities, and farmlands sprouted up along the lakeshore, and the area thrived economically for a couple decades. At its peak, it attracted more annual visitors than Yosemite National Park. However, by the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the lake was falling into it’s historic cycle of drying up; It had but few water sources, and the dryness and heat of the low desert was overpowering. Agricultural and industrial runoff from neighboring farmland and power plants contaminated the increasingly saline waters, encouraging algae blooms, and misinformation spread rampantly. Public opinion of the Salton Sea was that it was a toxic swamp, so hazardous that merely touching the water risked major health complications (Leuschner 2017), filled to the brim with dying three eyed fish and contamination. It is often wrongly assumed that the pollution flows freely from the New River, a small tributary with its origins in Mexico.
The Salton Sea supports a huge ecosystem within it’s sandy banks of worms, algae, decomposing fish, bugs, living fish and birds, and the waste products of all these animals produce hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which in small amounts is nothing of concern. However, in Endorheic bodies of water, there is no drainage for the sea to purge itself of accumulating salts, minerals, and buildup of any kind. Typically, the hydrogen sulfide is weighted towards the bottom of the sea by a dense layer of warmer surface salt water; however, during the high winds frequently experienced in the desert regions, some of these waste products are brought to the surface, depleting oxygen levels in the water and causing an enormously concentrated and noxious rotten egg odor. The lack of oxygen, compounded by increasingly saline and polluted waters also causes the fish population to rapidly began to die off. The decline of the fish population then affects the bird populations that rely on them as food source. As the food levels decline, some of the migratory birds face starvation and malnourishment, preventing them from making it to their next stops at the Great Salt Lake or Mono Lake (Clarke 2015). At the Salton Sea, the die off also creates another shoreline of stench; dead fish caked in algae cooking in the noonday sun that effectively drove almost all of the residents of the formerly glamorous shoreline communities away from the sea, collapsing the tourism economy and leaving behind a landscape of urban decay. The majority of the towns left in the area are supported by agriculture and industry, a small influx of tourists drawn in by the outsider-art based encampments of Slab City and Salvation Mountain or the promise of off-roading through the nearby fierce yet fragile habitat. Despite all this, bird-watching based tourism still brings large amounts of global visitors every year.
As the Salton Sea has been busy drying up at a rate of 5 feet per year, and currently no longer supports living fish. California has simultaneously spent the past several decades undergoing rapid suburban development. The pastoral hills and wetlands of the past, rich with orange trees, cactus, cattails, and water birds, begin to be filled in and paved to make way for shopping malls and tract homes. The rolling oak woodlands are leveled and coastal estuaries are drained and built up for more luxurious living, expanded highways, new strip malls and plywood housing named after the species clear cut to make room. 91% of California’s wetland habitat has been lost to development in the past 150 years (Clarke 2013), putting pressure on the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea to provide habitat and food for migratory and water birds. At the same time, the Gulf of California is being choked by United States imperialism; the fierce, raging Colorado river no longer flowing to the Gulf, reduced to what could be generously describe as a swampy trickle by the thirsty farmlands and cities of California and Arizona. This ecological disaster at the gulf puts another load of pressure on the Salton Sea; for many migratory species, this huge body of water is the last refuge on the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory pathway for hundreds upon hundreds of bird species. With the majority of their wetland and lake stops of the past lost due to development, the Salton Sea is their last refuge for hundreds of miles. Over 424 bird species – nearly two thirds of all birds species in the US - have been recorded at the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge area, one of the several state parks and wildlife refuges located on the shores (Delfino 2016). According to a September 19th, 2016 article posted to the Desert Report by Christian Shoeneman, “The Salton Sea [is] the most important bird area in the Inter-mountain West and desert regions in the spring, and in the fall is second only to the Great Salt Lake.”
In 2018, the California coastal metropolis of San Diego purchased part of the Salton Sea’s last remaining water sources to be used as an urban water source; the agricultural runoff from the sea’s neighboring farmlands. Although contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides, this water accounted for 50% of the water flowing into the Salton Basin, leaving only the small flows of the New River and the Whitewater River to maintain a sea 15 by 35 miles in size. Since 2018, the Salton Sea has been drying at twice it’s previous rate; it is estimated that if nothing is done in the next five to ten years, the sea will be reduced to a mudflat and an estimated a 1,000,000 birds could perish in this process, moving some species onto the critically endangered list, and move some into extinction (Leuschner 2017). 30% of the remaining population of White Pelicans depend on the Salton Sea for survival. Currently, the salt levels of the sea have measure 60 parts per thousand (PPT), which is dangerously close to the tolerable limit for the last remaining fish in the sea (Clarke 2015), the tilapia, an important food source for many of the hundreds of visiting bird species. Compare the Salton Sea’s 60 PPT with the average salinity of the Pacific Ocean, which measures 35 PPT, and you’ll understand just how salty this sea is becoming.
In addition to wiping some wildlife species clean off the planet, the loss of the Salton Sea poses human health hazards as well. The combination of a dusty dry lake bed and the high winds experienced in the desert increases airborne particulates. Dry lake beds are areas of accumulation, so while nutrients and minerals lie beneath the shallow waters, so do heavy metals incurred through industrial and agricultural waste and runoff into the sea. While some heavy metals are naturally occurring, many are not. We need only to look at Owen’s Lake, a now dry lakebed situated several hundred miles north of the Salton Sea that the USGS has called “possibly the greatest of most intense human disturbed dust source on Earth” (Simon 2012) and we can see the desperate future in store for the Coachella Valley. Drained dry by the thirsty, unsustainable city of Los Angeles, Owen’s lake used to be a large body of water at the foothills of the Eastern Sierra Mountains until the taps of the coastal cities heard promise of this great wealth of water. Health statistics seen in dry Owen’s Lake bed communities show asthma and rarer respiratory conditions and cancers increase due to the particulates in the air kicked up by the fierce winds of the high desert. It will be no different in the Salton basin; Asthma rates in the region are already the highest childhood asthma rates in all of California, and the predicted rise in respiratory conditions will disproportionally affect the communities of color and communities with lower incomes that call the basin home. The affluent communities of the Coachella Valley, however, will not be immune to the toxic dust storms. Airborne salt and sulfide particulates do not discriminate.
Several proposed restoration efforts have been brought to the table with the goals of reducing and stabilizing both the body of water’s overall salinity and surface levels, continuing the use of the sea as an irrigation drainage, and allow the area to flourish as a permanent healthy fish, wildlife, economical, and recreational site. (“Salton Sea Report” ) One proposal involves sectioning off the lake into smaller sections, or “mini-ponds”, with regulated out-flowing of water to control and discharge salts and nutrients that will inevitably accumulate. Theoretically, the shallower water in these smaller ponds would not accumulate hydrogen sulfide in the same problematic volumes that the sea does today, but this idea still leaves exposed lakebed to the high winds, jeopardizing human and wildlife health. Another proposed solution is widen and deepen the already existing coyote canal, which runs from the sea towards the Laguna Salada, a dry lakebed just south of the Mexican border outside of Mexicali, Baja, to alleviate the accumulation of mineral salts. This will require international negotiations between the two countries, as the canal would cross the already aggravated US-Mexico border, and would most likely be out of the question if a border wall is constructed. Yet another plan is to build a much more costly and intensive canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Salton Sea in an effort to restore and stabilize the shoreline and salinity levels. Some plans include desalination plants, as importing water from either the Gulf or the Pacific Ocean would only increase salinity levels in the sea. The hopes of selling some of the desalinated freshwater to coastal cities would theoretically cover the running costs of the project. However, all plans currently require the use of fossil fuels to run the system of pumps that would allow water to flow into the sea, creating an unsustainable design. Currently, 11 proposals are on the table, ranging in cost from 300 million to 8 billion dollars (Metz 2016).
Other previous proposals ranged in water sourcing and water dumping locations, but all generally agree; the Sea needs some sort of reliable influx of water, whether it’s seasonal floodwaters from the Colorado or delivered water from the Gulf of California or Pacific Ocean, and the Sea needs a way to expel its water. And the proposals all agree; this is a plan that cannot be completed soon enough. “The clock is ticking” (Delfino 2016), warns article after article, and many area conservationists and biologists agree. Due to human development, we’ve really eliminated all other options for the wildlife that now relies solely on the body of water for survival. One proposed plan, rather than re-routing or dumping the salty, briny water elsewhere, is to create a seaside desalination operation and sell the salt created. The options range from solar-powered desalination ponds, mid-sea barriers, dams, dikes, and causeways. As of 2003, about 8 desalination operations were being proposed to the Lower Colorado Region’s Bureau of Reclamation for consideration. (“Salton Sea Report”) Many of these operations would expose the lakebed playa, jeopardizing air quality in the region, so a outside water source would need to compliment the desalination efforts.
The Salton Sea often gets dismissed by outsiders as a man-made accident, not worthy of being saved due to our own negligence. This is a narrow and uninformed viewpoint that not only ignores the environmental impact we have had on the overall ecosystem and the wildlife it supports, but it silences the human part of the equation, pushing aside community health and well-being.
What to do about the Salton Sea is complicated; if we leave it alone, and let nature take it’s course, the results will create unlivable conditions for wildlife and humans both. Saving the Salton Sea requires us to look at a larger picture than the sea itself: the entire Colorado river’s ecosystem. We have drained every last drop from the course of the river, to the point that water rarely reaches the Gulf. It’s very much a problem of what to do with the Salton Sea as it is a problem of what to do with the entire river and it’s watershed. Can we undam the river, or halt the siphoning off of stolen waters from her historic and powerful shores to restore a balance we’ve erupted so violently? On top of creative engineering solutions and environmental legislature, it’s going to take a rethinking of how we use water in the west. Major cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and smaller cities like Palm Springs and the farmlands of Southern California and Southern Arizona need restructuring of their water usage. Perhaps the solution lies both in a attitude shift towards water usage and the inherent value of the Salton Sea, which could be assisted by a strong advertising campaign. To raise awareness of the issue, a massive social media and advertising campaign is necessary. We’ve seen the incredible amount of money that can be raised overnight for cathedrals in France; how do we stress to the public that this huge body of water is a veritable cathedral of biodiversity, worthy of deep pockets and vast efforts to save?
The fate of the sea is also in the hands of an engineering project designed to release the salty water from the Salton Basin via a channel to the Gulf of California through the now dry estuary. This would bring large benefits to both ecosystems, helping to relieve the accumulation of salts and minerals of the Salton Sea while bringing water back to the Mexican estuary, provided water from either the Colorado River or the Pacific Ocean was simultaneously allotted to the Salton Sea to maintain sea levels. By tapping into renewable resources, the pumps and levies could be run on solar or wind power, creating a sustainable system, and could be complimented with sustainably powered desalination systems. Perhaps a larger canal could be constructed from the gulf to the sea, allowing the sea to evolve into a large inland bay. All and any solutions would benefit the area in terms of wildlife biodiversity, outdoor recreation economies, and public health. Options are on the table, and it’s time to think big and reach towards venture capitalists, social media, and forward thinking, sustainably oriented engineers to save this incredible body of water.
Uncertain times require creative multi-dimensional thinking, and the Salton Sea is no exception. The urgency of this looming environmental crisis is real and it is not slowing down. The fate of hundreds of species and the health of a region is at stake. And the value of the next generation being able to enjoy a sunset watching migrating Sandhill Cranes along the largest lakeshore in California, spend time kayaking on the sea’s gentle waters, or fishing and swimming along a healthy shoreline is something we shouldn’t be bargaining with.
Clarke, Chris. “Why Don’t Californians Care About Saving the Salton Sea?” KCET, Oct. 2015. https://www.kcet.org/redefine/why-dont-californians-care-about-saving-the-salton-sea
Clarke, Chris. “Taking the Long View on the Colorado River.” KCET, April 17, 2013. https://www.kcet.org/socal-focus/taking-the-long-view-on-the-colorado-river
Delfino, Kim. “The clock is ticking at the Salton Sea” Desert Report, March 14, 2016. http://www.desertreport.org/?p=1704
Fountain, Henry. “Relief for a Parched Delta.” New York Times, April 15, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/science/earth/optimism-builds-for-effort-to-relieve-a parched-delta-in-mexico.html
Leuschner, Kurt. “The Salton Sea”. Conservation of Natural Resources, Oct 2017, College of the Desert, Palm Desert, CA.
Metz, Sam. “Ten Questions about the Eleven Proposals to Save the Salton Sea.” The Desert Sun, April 2016. https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/politics/2018/04/16/ten-questions-eleven proposals-save-salton-sea/516602002/
Restoration of the Salton Sea Final Report. US Dept of Interior Bureau of Reclamation. https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/saltnsea/finalreport/. Accessed May 5, 2019.
Salton Sea, Past and Present. Desert USA, https://www.desertusa.com/salton-sea/about-salton sea.html. Accessed May 8, 2019.
Simon, Matt. “The Salton Sea: Death and Politics in the Great American Water Wars.” Wired Magazine, Sept. 14, 2012. https://www.wired.com/2012/09/salton-sea-saga/
Turner, Allison Harvery and Gold, Barry. “Solving the Salton Sea Crisis.” San Diego Tribune, Oct 12, 2016. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-utbg-salton-sea-crisis 20161012-story.html
The Salton Sea. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salton_Sea. Accessed May 5, 2019.