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Salton Sea Sense

A resource for California's largest lake and potential environmental catastrophe

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April 2015

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley: A Tale of Two Seas

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea has a long and sordid past. The Salton Sea is located in the Imperial Valley, a region of California where the dominant economy is the production of crops. In order to create this farming oasis in the middle of the desert, 917,540 million gallons of water a year must be shunted to the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River. This is the beginning of the story of how an agriculture revolution has created and changed the largest body of water in California.

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Row irrigation in Imperial Valley, Calif. 2009. Photo by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York.

The Salton Sea was originally formed in 1905 when massive rain and snowmelt overwhelmed the dams designed to contain the Colorado River and poured into the empty Salton sink. The dams were repaired quickly, but the Sea had already filled. By the 1930s water levels had noticeably dropped and most believed that the sea would naturally dry up. However, around the same time, cotton farming and the massive water shuttling began in the Imperial Valley [1], refilling the Sea with agricultural run-off. Continue reading “Agriculture in the Imperial Valley: A Tale of Two Seas”

Bird is the Word

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Yuma Ridgway’s Rail. Aaron Maizlish, Ridgway’s Rail. 2014, click for link.

The Salton Sea is often construed by the news, documentaries, and other blogs as a post-apocalyptic wasteland that is devoid of life. However, this is an incorrect portrayal that has taken hold, most likely for its dramatic effect. In reality, the Salton Sea and its surrounding area is an oasis of biodiversity in the Sonoran Desert. Over 400 different species of birds utilize the sea for some portion of the year [1]. This makes the Salton Sea rank 2nd in avian diversity in the United States [2]. In addition to the sheer number of birds that rely on the Sea, it is important to consider which species of birds are there. Continue reading “Bird is the Word”

A Thirsty Sea

Located in an extremely arid region, the Salton Sea is subject to high temperatures and low precipitation. Extreme evaporation alone causes the water level at the Sea to decrease 5.4 ft. every year [1]. Historically, the majority of the water inflows at the Sea have been from diversions of the Colorado River, inputs from Mexico, and agricultural discharges from Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys. Without these vital inflows, the depth of the Sea will quickly decrease causing release of contaminants currently present at the bottom of the lake and increase in salinity to even higher levels. The current salinity at the Sea is about 54 g/L which is much higher than the salinity in the ocean which is on average 35 g/L. This high level of salinity will affect the habitability for fish at the lake where only tilapia species have been able to survive despite massive die offs.

Continue reading “A Thirsty Sea”

Myths and Mistruths, Vol. 1

Given the complexity of the Salton Sea, it is easy to understand how an assortment of myths and mistruths can pop up from time to time. Some myths are playful and inconsequential, while others have pervasive ramifications if believed and spread. We here at Salton Sea Sense hope to shed light on some of these ideas, giving validity to the ones who deserve it, and debunk those that do not.

Here is a list of some of the most common myths surrounding the Sea.[1]

  • “A Spanish ship filled with pearls from the 16th century is buried at the bottom of the Salton Sea.”
  • “The Salton Sink would be dry right now were it not for the accident in 1905. Therefore, we should just let the Sea dry up.”
  • “It is not safe to swim in, nor is it safe to eat the fish.”

Continue reading “Myths and Mistruths, Vol. 1”

The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Disaster

Located roughly 160 miles from Los Angeles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water. Accidentally “created,” as part of a disastrous large-scale irrigation scheme to divert the waters of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley at the turn of the twentieth-century (1905-1907), the Salton Sea is a cultural, legal, and environmental space that defies easy categorization. It has shaped, and been shaped by, what historian Linda Nash, writing in a different regional context, has called “a tangle of discourses.” [1] Accordingly, it is, at once, oasis and sump, refuge and refuse, mishap and miracle; it is a sea of contradictions where the intersection of human aspirations and natural forces have created a “hybrid landscape” that underscores the latent consequences of “progress.” [2]

Continue reading “The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Disaster”

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