Salton Sea shrinking
A man-made toxic lake in the middle of the desert, with the potential to kill thousands of people living around it, is not only an apocalyptic scenario, but also a harsh reality for Southern California.
About two and a half hours east of the University of San Diego, spread across Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley, lies the Salton Sea, a portrait of improper land and water management.
According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was recreated in 1905 after the Colorado River flooded portions of the developing Imperial Valley. High spring flooding created the sea and it grew to cover 130 miles of shoreline before engineers were able to contain the water breach in 1907.
The Department of Parks and Recreation’s website for the Salton Sea Recreation Area noted opportunities for kayakers, campers, and hikers to enjoy the area. It only once mentioned the high salinity that has killed a significant portion of the fish population and still contributes to the toxicity of the body of water.
A related page on the Department of Parks and Recreation’s website, titled ‘Salton Sea 101,’ indicated that about 1.3 million acre-feet of water evaporates from the Salton Sea each year, yet it is still California’s largest lake.
Mark Ceder, the Program Manager of the University of San Diego’s Outdoor Adventures program, has visited the Salton Sea for the past five years.
“The Salton Sea was one of those locations I would see written about in kayaking magazines as one of the most unique places in the country to go paddle,” Ceder said. “One weekend, I took my kayaks out and paddled across the Sea. It’s definitely a land of extremes and beauty.”
Visitors to the region immediately notice the state of disrepair that the surrounding environment is in. Ceder noted that the odd landscape attracts many visitors despite the poor quality of the environment.
“There have been a lot of improvements to the Salton Sea’s environment,” Ceder said. “Going out there for the first time, it was really eye opening that I almost felt guilty for wanting to see it, even though a lot of it had been cleaned up. There are still areas that haven’t been touched, and it’s still shocking to think about families and kids growing up in a house next to abandoned places that haven’t been touched in years.”
During the 1950s, developers created tourist towns around the lake, including Bombay Beach. After several detrimental tropical storms in the 1970s, the Salton Sea flooded the surrounding area. The flood destroyed many of the towns before dramatically receding, leaving ghostly skeletons of once prosperous developments.
The sea lacks any point of outflow and has been largely maintained by a runoff from the surrounding agricultural areas. The runoff has only increased its toxicity and failed to solve the issue of rapid evaporation from the vast areas of shallow standing water.
The Atlantic reported in 2002 that the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to provide billions of gallons of water every year for 15 years if the state of California would manage the Salton Sea. As 2016 draws to a close, the deal is ending soon and so is a large source of the Salton Sea’s water supply.
Ceder is a graduate of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Citizens Water Academy, a program for San Diego leaders who are passionate about the county’s water issues. Ceder recently spoke with Maureen Stapleton, the General Manager for the San Diego Water Authority. Stapleton emphasized that environmental issues are an important part of the plan. She said that it’s not going to be similar to the Owens Lake and dust mitigation plan in Los Angeles County.
Owens Lake is a primarily dry and dusty lake bed near Lone Pine, California. As the lake receded, large clouds of dust formed, which drastically reduced air quality in the surrounding region. NPR reported in 2013 that Owens Lake is the largest single source of dust pollution in the nation.
Ceder explained that the Salton Sea is not as detrimental to air quality as Owens Lake has been in the past, but it still needs to be managed to ensure that Imperial County’s air is safe to breathe.
“Imperial County has some of the worst air quality and some of the largest percentages of kids with asthma in the country,” Ceder said. “The Salton Sea is a part of that problem in that the dust that is created by the sea receding has a lot of chemicals, toxins, and minerals in it. The research shows that the Salton Sea contributes about 10 percent of the air pollution in the area, which may grow as the Sea continues to recede. The other problems in the area are unregulated agriculture and Mexico’s lack of regulation on burning and air quality.”
Great clouds of dust rise above the sea during high winds. This dust is made up of dried, toxic silt from the evaporated lake bed. The dust degrades air quality in the surrounding area and could travel to nearby Los Angeles or San Diego if concentrated enough.
On Aug. 31, 2016, President Obama included the Salton Sea in his remarks at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit concerning climate change and environmental preservation. One of goals laid out by Obama included the restoration of the Salton Sea.
“In partnership with California, we’re going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it’s too late,” Obama said.
In Mar. of 2014, the Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Anne Castle, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Salton Sea Authority to direct collaboration between federal, tribal, and local organizations involving the Salton Sea.
The memorandum stated that the organizations involved will pursue renewable energy resources at and around the Salton Sea in order to mitigate the environmental, public health, and economic consequences of environmental degradation.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the California budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year now includes $80.5 million to fund research and development for the first phase of the Salton Sea Management Plan.
The plan is now in its initial stages and is set to continue the ongoing process of restoring both the Salton Sea and the land surrounding it. KPBS reported that, according to Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, the entire restoration process could cost up to $2.5 billion.
Calif. governor Jerry Brown created a Salton Sea Task Force in May of 2015. According to the Salton Sea Management Program’s website, the task force’s short-term goal is to create 9,000-12,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects. The task force has also been given a medium-term plan of 18,000-25,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects.
As federal, state, and local organizations work together to improve the Salton Sea, the surrounding communities should take interest in the region and learn more about the importance of the Sea. Ceder recommends that San Diego residents and USD students see the Sea as it is now, as the landscape will change now that the federal government has become so involved in the restoration process.
“It’s going to be a multi-generational process to continue to rectify the current situation,” Ceder said. “In 30 years, the Salton Sea is going to look different than it does today. With Outdoor Adventures, we’ve been going to the same places for the past 30 years, and the Salton Sea is one of those places that is not going to look the same. We are running programs out there, and I recommend that people go out there and see it. It means so much to so many people, it’s more than a problem to be dealt with.”
Part of changemaking is involvement in local issues. For USD students, the Salton Sea is a major issue for those interested. in water conservation.
Written by Kelly Kennedy