A drying sea

What happens if the Salton Sea dries up?

The climate in the area will shift, making winter more difficult for farmers in the area. The birds will have no place to rest along their migratory routes. However, most worrisome of all is the impact the drying sea can have on human health.

First, let’s imagine the scale of the Salton Sea. It is visible from orbit, shaped like a footprint in the sand, spread out over 343 square miles (889 km2). That is almost the size of Hong Kong and big enough to fit Manhattan Island ten times over. Now imagine that it has become a dry lakebed with very fine soil, perfect for being carried on the high winds common in the area. In the desert of Southern California, a sea of sand and gravel, more dusty space doesn’t seem like much of a concern. The major difference lies in the makeup of the dust and the sand. In the desert, the sand is made of silica and calcium carbonate, having the potential to clog up the lungs and irritate mucous membranes. In short, normal sand might give you a bad cough, but little else. In the case of the Salton Sea, dust can turn into a more serious health hazard.

On this dry lake bed, the sediment left behind would be small, fine particles defined by the history of the lake. Similar to the Aral Sea in central Asia, the Salton Sea has been a dumping ground for agricultural waste. When dumped, the waste has nowhere to go but to settle at the bottom. In the case of the Salton Sea, contaminants can remain there for hundreds of years unless degraded by the sun or otherwise broken down by the chemistry of the Sea. Since the Salton Sea is continually losing water to evaporation, the contaminants are only concentrating.

Chemicals like DDT from the old days (an insecticide still used in Mexico to combat malaria) and every pesticide used by farmers around the Salton Sea in the last 100+ years can be buried in the sediment and impact the ecosystem.

The pressing question becomes, what is down there? What could we breathe in should the Sea dry up and the sediment be freed?

From a 2004 study of Salton Sea sediment[1],  DDT and its metabolites were found in concentrations as high as 40 parts per billion(ppb) in the sediment while other agents known to cause cancer, such as PCBs, were found in concentrations as high as 300 ppb. For some perspective on the PCB concentration, the EPA limit for PCBs in water systems is 0.5 ppb. Other pesticides such as lindane and dieldrin were found in significant concentrations in the sediment. In a 2008 report[2] in which they analyzed the Alamo and New Rivers for pesticides on their way to the Sea, they found high concentrations of trifluralin, pendimethalin and other pesticides that will without a doubt trip up your spell check. Pesticides like pendimethalin have been linked to cancer[3] while trifluralin can cause skeletal and liver abnormalities.[4]

Dust freed from a dried out Salton Sea would be an irritating, potentially carcinogenic cocktail that would plague anyone for miles around. One might recall that in Los Angeles a great stink was made over a sulfurous stench that came straight from the Salton Sea in 2012.[5] Imagine the smog of LA made even worse by toxic particles making their way to blanket the city, with the potential to make LA look like Shanghai on a bad day.

That sounds like a bleak situation. That is one of the things that could happen if the Salton Sea dried up. Left unmanaged, toxic dust would make its way through the Inland Empire, leading to high medical and economic costs for people throughout southern California and generally making things miserable. The number of people suffering from asthma and lung cancer in the Inland Empire would skyrocket. It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There are ways to remediate the Salton Sea, which have the potential to remove these toxic and carcinogenic substances over time. Already there are artificial wetlands in place, which have been shown to help break down troublesome substances. It may sound depressing, but there is hope for the Salton Sea so long as we do something about it.

Written by Samuel Patton


[1] Sapozhnikova, Y., Bawardi, O. & Schlenk, D. Pesticides and PCBs in sediments and fish from the Salton Sea, California, USA. Chemosphere 55, 797–809 (2004).

[2] Orlando, J.L., Smalling, K.L., and Kuivila, K.M., 2008, Pesticides in water and suspended sediment of the Alamo and New Rivers, Imperial Valley/Salton Sea Basin, California, 2006–2007: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 365, 32 p.

[3] World Health Organication (2014)  IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans pp. 34

[4] Environmental Protection Agency (2000) Trifluralin Fact Sheet http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/trifural.html

[5] Becerra, Hector. 2012. “Salton Sea Confirmed as Source of L.A. Basin Smell.” Los Angeles Times, September 12. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/12/local/la-me-smell-20120912.