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The Dying Salton Sea: A Lake With a Rich Past and Uncertain Future

George Patten, M.S.

A flock of Pelicans perching along the shoreline of the Salton Sea, photo courtesy of the California Historical Society, c. 1910.

A flock of Pelicans perching along the shoreline of the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society, 1910.

Once known as the ‘Miracle in the Desert,’ the Salton Sea is the biggest lake in California, and hosts one of the largest and most diverse bird populations in the Continental United States. The area also supports numerous migratory waterfowl, wetlands, and habitats for endangered and sensitive wildlife. The lake itself has a storied past, originally forming by accident in 1905 when levees holding the Colorado River broke and flooded the dry basin for two years. A few decades later, the area developed into a thriving tourist destination complete with swanky resorts, yacht clubs, and even celebrity sightings – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were among the jet set who frequented the area in the 50’s and 60’s.  In the late 1970’s, ecological conditions in the lake began to decline, causing tourism to dry up and leaving resorts and real estate abandoned. The continued degradation of the Salton Sea, and threats to its future existence, have prompted debate about how to manage the area and restore its valuable ecology.

Historical Formation and Ecological Problems

An aerial perspective of the Salton Sea revealing a dense agricultural presence along its shoreline 2013.

An aerial perspective of the Salton Sea revealing a dense agricultural presence along its shoreline, 2013.

Historically, the Salton Basin supported an extensive inland aquatic network, which at its full capacity was approximately five times the current size of the lake. Due to the arid climate of the region, however, the Salton Basin dried up completely for several decades leading up to the 1905 floods. Currently the major source of water to the lake is from agricultural drainage, which contains dissolved salts that contribute to the lake’s salinity. At 235 feet below sea level, the lake has no drainage outlet, and over time the lake’s salinity reached about 44 parts per thousand, or about 25% greater than that of the ocean. High nutrient inputs to the lake led to eutrophic conditions that caused massive fish fatalities and water quality impacts, ultimately resulting in the decline of the booming tourism industry in the area.

Current Environmental Concerns

Pelicans and over approximately 400 other species of birds still rely on the Salton Sea during migration.

Pelicans and over approximately 400 other species of birds still rely on the Salton Sea during migration.

Today, the Salton Sea still supports critical ecological niches and serves as a crucial stopover for migratory birds, particularly with the substantial loss of wetlands in other parts of California. However, continued water quality issues and increasing salinity pose a threat to the aquatic ecosystem and the lake’s ability to support wildlife. Lower flows and increased evaporation have caused the lake to recede, exacerbating the problems with salinity. Recent court rulings and legislation, including the upholding of the 2003 Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), will reduce California’s draw from the Colorado River and result in flows being diverted away from the Salton Sea to more urban areas. Without these flows, water levels in the lake could continue to recede, causing even greater levels of salinity, further impacting aquatic life and bird populations that rely on it. The lower lake levels would also expose more shoreline, which after drying could create harmful particulate-carrying dust that pose serious health concerns for the area.

The Costs of Inaction

Decrepit vestiges of a once booming economy litter the Salton Sea shoreline.

A bait & tackle store and other decrepit vestiges of a once booming economy litter the perimeter of the Salton Sea.

Opinions about the fate of the lake vary between those who feel protecting the ecosystem is critical to those who prioritize water needs of California’s growing populations. Many visitors to the Salton Sea note the stark qualities of the landscape, comparing the abandoned buildings and decaying fish to some kind of post-apocalyptic scene (think Mad Max). But, despite the area’s economic and aesthetic decline, there are still compelling reasons to support its preservation and ecological restoration.

Salton_Sea_Tilapia

Dead Tilapia wash up on the Salton Sea Shoreline in 2000.

The Pacific Institute recently estimated that the costs of inaction will range in the tens of billions in the coming decades, if no measures are taken to prevent ecological collapse of the lake The organization notes that the 2003 QSA mandated an environmental impact study of the Salton Sea and a funding plan for restoration (estimated to cost $9 billion), which has not been implemented. More recently, voters in California during the November elections approved Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion bond measure to support various water supply, quality, and infrastructure projects. It also earmarks $500 million for restoration projects, including those designed to benefit the Salton Sea.

Although not a panacea, the passing of Proposition 1 represents a promising step towards protecting the critical ecology of the Salton Sea, and avoiding a high price tag in the form of lost habitat and human health consequences. While the fate of the Salton Sea is far from certain, recent interest in its preservation offers hope for its continued existence, rather than its reduction to a point in the history books.

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