The Salton Sea is one of the most enigmatic water sites in our home state of California. It serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when water sources aren’t managed, when long-term plans don’t exist. Water stewardship is more than a slogan. Water management and land-use planning must be more integrated.
Few people know of the Salton Sea until they explore the greater Palm Springs area in inland Southern California. Drive east past the densely inhabited, green-lawns-in-the-desert cities along I-10, hang a right at Indio, pass Coachella of festival fame, and aim for Mecca, famous for its date farms. There you can choose at a fork in the road to travel along the north or south side of this 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide lake, California’s largest.
The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when massive flooding caused the Colorado River to break through an irrigation canal and flow into the Salton Basin for 18 months. By the 1950s and 60s, developers were creating resorts and thousands of tourists flocked to the lake annually. The lake had a series of problems, though. There was no way for it to drain, runoff water contaminated with pesticides from nearby Imperial Valley farms flowed into it, and because of the evaporation rate in the desert climate, salt levels increased, making the lake today twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.
During the 70s tourism declined, and the recently built resort towns were left in disrepair. Evaporation has continued, shrinking the lake that exists now only because of the influx of toxic farm runoff. The remaining water can barely support marine life. During the summer of 1999, for example, more than eight million tilapia fish died in a single day, then washing along the shore in a band about three miles wide and 10 miles long. Skeletal fish remains crunch underfoot when you walk the “beach” today.
The rapidly retreating shoreline has left about 20,000 acres of dry lakebed exposed, resulting in a toxic dust the winds blow for several miles through inhabited communities. It’s a serious public health threat.
Experts at the Oakland, CA-based Pacific Institute have long worked on solutions and are raising hope again this year for change. “2019 brought a new state administration and new enthusiasm and even hope for the Salton Sea,” they say. “The pieces are all in place for real action at the Salton Sea. Land use agreements have been signed. More than $350 million is available for Salton Sea projects, approved by California voters. Another $200 million or more has been authorized at the federal level but needs to get to California.”
Stay tuned to see whether California meets the challenge of revitalizing the Salton Sea. For a detailed history and description of current options, check out this excellent Pacific Institute summary here.