Salton Sea Primer

History and facts.

The Colorado River flows down the east side of the Rockies and exits to the sea part way down the ancient length of the Sea of Cortez. When the river gets to the sea, the change in motion causes it to dump most of the sediment it has carried along – yes, including the stuff that it carved away to create the Grand Canyon. Eventually a berm built up that filled the area between current day Yuma and Ocotillo. The area currently known as the Salton Sink – an area stretching from Yuma up to mid Coachella Valley – cut off from the ocean, dried up. The area has been occasionally filled when the Colorado changed course and flowed north. The last time this happened was about 2500 years ago. The deposits from the Colorado are what leads the area to be the richest farmland in the country.
The current Salton Sea was created over a period of about 18 months in 1905 and 1906 a canal that was bringing water from the Colorado River to irrigate farmland in the Imperial Valley breached, and the Colorado leaked into the Salton Sink. Initially it flooded up to 195ft below sea level. My house is at 190 below, so 110 years ago, I would’ve had beach-front property!
In the last 100 years, the Sea has been maintained by the New, Alamo and White rivers and runoff from surrounding farms, as well as the surrounding mountains. Because it is below sea level, the water that comes in can only escape through evaporation, leaving behind the salt from the Colorado (it is an extra salty river), nitrates and other fertilizers that were brought by farm runoff. Another ingredient is selenium – a naturally occurring element – and the surrounding hills are rich in this. Though selenium is necessary in our diets in very small quantities, it is present in the sea bed at unhealthy levels. Thus the Sea has become gradually more salty, more nutrient rich and more selenium rich. The ocean’s salinity is about 35 parts per thousand, the Salton Sea’s is currently around 60 and the Dead Sea is about 190.

Resort History

In the 50s and 60s the area was developed as a resort, after it was realized that the water level was being maintained by the rivers and farming. Desert Shores, Salton Sea Beach, North Shore and Bombay Beach were all initially planned as resorts. They were successful for some time with a lot of water craft recreation, sandy beaches and fishing. (My house was built in 1965 and features a former fish-cleaning outhouse with power and water inlet and drainage. This was removed before I arrived, the structure is now the swing hut.)
In the 70s there were two ‘storm of the century’s and the sea level rose to flood many of the resort structures. Combined with increasing salinity and the beaches becoming less sandy, the resorts failed. The beaches are now mostly barnacle and fish bones – the barnacles having been inadvertently introduced during WWII when the military practiced landing sea planes – after they’d been in the ocean and picked up a few barnacles. They left a few barnacles in the sea, and with no predators, they flourished.

Status Quo

Between the 70s and early 2010s, the sea level was maintained at around 227 feet below sea level, but salinity and nitrate levels increased. Only tilapia adapted to this increasing salinity. The sea is not actually polluted, just very rich in nutrients and salty. In the 2012-17 years, the sea level started to decrease, this was due to a combination of factors. The Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) which decided how much of the Colorado River water went to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Imperial Valley and San Diego, was now being implemented by the three parties other than Imperial Valley, and IV is getting less water for farms. This is how the agreement originally was, but previously, other parties had not needed to take their full share. As development occurs in those areas, they want to! Farmers are fallowing fields, and being more and more conservative about water usage, so less water is going to the Sea. And then we have had years of drought. The QSA will give IV less water starting in 2018, so it will start to get a lot worse a lot faster.

Future without action

If the Salton Sea is allowed to dry up, the dust storms from the dried lake bed will obliterate air quality in Imperial Valley, northern Mexico in the region of the Sea of Cortes and south western Arizona, during windstorms and prevailing wind coming from the north west of the Sea. This is typically a windy area – as evidenced by the hundreds of windmills in the Banning pass. Imperial County is some of, if not the richest farmland in the US. At certain times of year, up to 50% of vegetables on American plates come from Imperial County.
The budding geothermal field may become unusable as air quality drops below breathable levels for the workers and there is nowhere to live.
When the wind blows the other way – up from the Gulf of California, most often in summer, the dust will go the other way and wipe out the Coachella Valley and on into the LA basin.
Thus, the dust resulting from the drying of the Sea will have a major impact. About 250,000 internal refugees will be created by the disaster, and our best agricultural land will be gone. That’s not just going to impact the local area, that’s everyone in the US who eats food grown there (which is pretty much everyone), and all the economic fallout from that. Just use your imagination.

Next Steps

There are currently two plans that seem to be taking hold.
The first is Perimeter Lake plan, which is a ‘short’ term plan, intended to be implemented in the next 10 years. It is backed by the SSAC (Salton Sea Action Committee - The Perimeter lake plans to build a berm starting at where the New River enters the Sea – the far south west corner – up around the west side and all the way around to just south of Bombay Beach on the east. The new rim will have primarily fresh water coming into it, will be typically ½ mile wide (600 yards at one skinny point) and 65 miles long, giving a total area of 36 square miles – still larger than Lake Havasu, usable for recreation. The berm will be built from the silt on the bottom of the Sea. The tail end of the rim lake will let water flow off into the center of the area now currently covered by the Sea. As the salinity levels fall, this will allow restocking of Corvina, Croaker and recovery of Tilapia population.
The second is the Sea-to-Sea plan, in which two canals are built to exchange water with the Sea of Cortes (Gulf of California). This is backed by the Save Or Sea campaign (EcoMedia Compass - and is a longer term plan, and requires international co-operation with Mexico, but it is also of benefit to Mexico because they have Laguna Salada, to the south west of the Salton Sea, which is in a similar situation. They are already in progress to build a canal to bring ocean water to Laguna Salada. Currently part of the reason the plan is stymied is that shrimp farmers along the top of the Sea of Cortes think that the higher concentration of Salton Sea water and nutrients flowing out will damage their farms. The plan to bring some water in via a canal though would add on to the water inflow planned for by the Perimeter Lake plan.

What you can do

You can back either or both plans – both SSAC and EMC have Donate buttons on their websites.
You can volunteer with EcoMedia Compass.
Write your local congress representative to insist on support for restoration plans. This doesn’t just necessarily mean your California local rep – this is going to have much wider repercussions than just California.
Follow both SSAC and EMC and keep informed.
Tell everyone! Educate all their friends and keep this viral.