Will the Salton Sea Live or Die?


The drought in the southwest is pushing the Salton Sea—the largest lake in California–closer to death.

The Salton Sea was a dry, ancient lake bed.  Due to its location on the San Andreas fault in a depression of land, it has been prone to flooding every several hundred years.   But the current version didn’t involve natural flooding.  This was man-made.

In 1905, engineers attempted to increase irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River.  But the river got away from them and jumped the levees.  Big time!  For nearly two years, the water flowed out of the river and into what is now known as the Salton Sea.

In the 50’s and 60’s, entrepreneurs built the surrounding acreage into a huge resort area.   Once called the American Riviera, the place was a hot spot for the rich and famous as well as ordinary families. The Salton Sea once housed over 400,000 boats.  Fish of many species were plentiful.

And then it turned around, quickly.  The Salton Sea is surrounded by nearly half a million acres of farmland.  And the ag runoff into the lake consisted not only of water, but also salt, fertilizers, and pesticides.  The lake soon became saltier than the ocean, which killed most of the fish.  Algal blooms grew.  So did bacteria.  While the Salton Sea is still heavily visited by migratory birds, with more than 400 species documented, the fish population these days consists almost entirely of tilapia.

As the sea fell apart, so did the resorts, and the nearby towns.  Visit the Salton Sea now, as I did recently, and you won’t stay long.  The beach does appear white—but that’s only because it’s coated with the bones of fish and bird carcasses.  Don’t ask about the putrid smell; comparatively, rotten eggs would be a fragrant bouquet.  You could visit the nearby towns of Niland and Salton City, where you can buy a house for not much more cash than is currently in your wallet, though there’s no reason to.

Now combine the drought with the water diversion for urban dwellers, and we have a real mess on our hands.  The area’s dust is very fine and loaded with things that can harm you, or even kill you.  Valley fever, a fungal infection, is caused by breathing the dust that’s kicked up by area winds.  The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was known for its huge clouds which blackened skies and were known as black blizzards.  No one knows whether letting the Salton Sea die will yield the same horrific result, or maybe something worse.

Maybe you think, well, the Salton Sea is far away from me, so why worry about it?  Except that some of those black blizzards reached from the Great Plains to as far as New York City.  The Salton Sea’s future dust storms are projected to blanket much of the southwest United States.  If we let it continue to die, we could be facing some serious environmental issues.

There are lots of ideas to keep the Salton Sea alive and reduce the potentially devastating environmental consequences.  But the cost would be in the billions.  And there are many stakeholders. No one wants to pay with either money or water.  Here are some ideas that have been discussed:

  • truck in salt water
  • pump in water via a pipeline from the Gulf of California
  • pump out the water in the Salton Sea and desalinate it, then return it create berms so that birds can stay, and fill in the rest with rocks and dirt
  • take water from the Imperial Valley and San Diego
  • develop a hybridized plant that can absorb the sea’s chemicals

We can send a man to the moon, but we haven’t figured out how to stop potentially poisonous dust from escaping the Salton Sea—and harming all of us.

101 Comments on Will the Salton Sea Live or Die?

  1. Ellie Knight // August 16, 2015 at 7:24 pm //

    Jeanne, this effect has already been documented in the Owens Valley. My daughter lives in Ridgecrest, at the south end of this area, and subject to winds blowing mine waste dust from the former bed of Owens Lake. Valley Fever and allergies are common occurrences. “LA Water” are fighting words there!

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