When it was first created by a flood in 1905, California's Salton Sea — not really a sea, but a massive lake covering more than 500 square miles — was hailed as a "miracle in the desert." The area has since become an important home for millions of migrating birds, including 19 sensitive or endangered species.
But the Salton Sea has been on the decline for decades. Because it has no outlet, it now has a higher salinity concentration than the Pacific Ocean — so high, in fact, that it has killed many of the fish and birds that depend upon it. Meanwhile, much like the Aral Sea, it is rapidly drying out, in no small part due to agriculture. If it dries further, large portions of the lake bed could become exposed to the air and sun, creating dust storms that experts say could spread toxic elements such as selenium and arsenic — pollutants from nearby agriculture — that would pose a public health hazard. According to the California Audubon Society, this is already happening.
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And things could get even worse. A 2003 water transfer deal, recently upheld by the California's highest court, would send "billions of gallons of water a year from Imperial County farms to cities in San Diego County," according to a report from NPR station KQED. While this could reduce California's dependence on the Colorado River — the source of the flood that originally created the Salton Sea — it would also cut off the agricultural runoff that is currently the only source of replenishing water for the lake.
The water transfer deal, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, includes provisions to provide the Salton Sea with "mitigation water" through 2018, but experts say that is not enough. The sea is already losing a foot of water depth every year, and that will only get worse as water supplies dry up, increasing the likelihood of toxic dust storms.
Dried up tree branches obscure the view of the decaying shoreline on the Salton Sea. (Photo: David Prasad/flickr)
"That's a huge public health hazard," David Ginsburg, a marine environmental biologist with the University of Southern California, told the Sacramento Bee.
Politics have not made things any easier. Multiple state and local agencies are vying for control over the area, and the state has slashed budgetary expenditures related to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, which is scheduled to close on July 1, according to the Ocean County Register. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting the funding to the state-run Salton Sea Restoration Council, saying that would allow local agencies to take over restoration efforts. One such agency is the Salton Sea Authority, a "joint powers authority" comprised of representatives from Imperial and Riverside counties, two water districts and the Torres-Martinez Cahuilla Indians. The executive director of the Salton Sea Authority resigned in March "for personal reasons," according to the Imperial Valley Press. His position was a part-time job due to budgetary restraints and the paper says the authority had not accomplished much in the prior six months.
Not everyone agrees that the Salton Sea is doomed. Halla Razak, Colorado River program director for the San Diego County Water Authority, told the Huffington Post that the Quantification Settlement Agreement "fully mitigates" the water diverted away from the area and some water conserved by paying farmers to leave some fields fallow will be diverted back to the Salton Sea.