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. A large portion of the populations of many United States Endangered Species as well as California Bird Species of Special Concern (SSC) inhabit the Sea. For instance, 40% of the population of the federally endangered Yuma Ridgway’s Rail resides at the Sea and it hosts a large seasonal population of American White Pelicans, which are a SSC species [3].

In addition to the bird populations, the Salton Sea also contains a very large population of tilapia, which are a key food source for the pelicans and some other bird species. The tributaries and wetlands surrounding the sea are home to common fish species such as carp, catfish, and bass, but are also one of the last areas that support the federally endangered Desert Pupfish. Based upon this, we can see that nature has been more prosperous than any of the real estate developments at the Salton Sea! (More on that in a later post.)

While there is a sizeable amount of wildlife at the Salton Sea, the species are currently under duress due to several factors. These factors include: increasing salinity, low dissolved oxygen, avian botulism toxin, loss of nesting and breeding habitat, and toxicity from metals and pesticide residues. Additionally, the risk of disease and mortality from all of these factors will increase if the amount of water entering the sea is reduced. These factors will be discussed in detail by future posts, but suffice it to say, if they are not addressed it will be catastrophic for many of the bird and fish species that currently inhabit the sea and could lead to a complete ecosystem collapse [4]. This is especially concerning for the endangered and SSC designated species.

Spatial distribution of birds banded at the Salton Sea and then released. (7)
Spatial distribution of birds banded at the Salton Sea and then released. (7)

You might be asking yourself, “So what? They are birds, can’t they just fly somewhere else?” However, the answer to this question is a resounding “No!”

Over 90% of California’s natural wetlands have been destroyed [5]. The Salton Sea is one of the only stops left in southern California for the Pacific Flyway. The Pacific Flyway is one of the four major bird migratory pathways in the western hemisphere. The Pacific flyway extends from Alaska to Patagonia, and in fact, birds banded at the Salton Sea have been recovered in Alaska, proving the importance of the Salton Sea to bird migration [6]. If the Salton Sea becomes too inhospitable, not only would the birds who call the sea home die, but the populations of migratory species would decrease as well. This is due to the facts that the loss in habitat will decrease the total number of birds that can be supported, and that the birds will have to fly farther without suitable habitat (costing them more energy, which may have been used for reproduction).

“Well, the Salton Sea hasn’t always been here,” you might argue, “maybe the wildlife populations are an accident too.”

This argument is erroneous as well, because before the Salton Sea formed, the Salton Sink was periodically filled by the Colorado River, (forming ancient Lake Cahuilla) with the most recent event occurring only 400 years ago [7]. Based upon archaeological middens, the avian species composition of Lake Cahuilla was very similar to that of the present day [8]. Therefore, the birds historically inhabited this area, are currently inhabiting this area, and now have no place else to go. The many different stakeholders must come together soon to address the factors that will cause the collapse of this unique ecological oasis.

Written by Jaben Richards

[1] Michael A. Patten, Guy McCaskie, and Philip Unitt, Birds of the Salton Sea: Status, Biogeography, and Ecology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) 34-63

[2] Patt Morrison, “A Persuasive Case for Saving the Salton Sea, California’s Biggest Lake.” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA) September 17, 2014. Accessed April 15.

[3] “Salton Sea.” Salton Sea. Accessed April 15, 2015.

[4] Patten, 9

[5] “Endangered and Sensitive Species, Fish and Wildlife Service.” Endangered and Sensitive Species, Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed April 15, 2015. Species.html

[6] University of Redlands Salton Sea Database Program. In Salton Sea Digital Atlas.

[7] Patten, 3

[8] Patten, 12