When we talk about the Salton Sea, the discussion often revolves around science, environment, and economics. How toxic is the water, exactly? Which types of birds rely on the sea’s existence? What is the price tag on implementing restoration projects? While these are all great conversations, we often forget the major and arguably most important factor: the role of people.

From afar, students, researchers, and policymakers around California and the world gawk at the state of the Salton Sea, while thousands of people reside near the Sea and experience its stench and beauty every day. A local photographer seeks to share the stories of these people through Salton Sea Speaks.

At the Salton Sea, a real dilemma of environmental justice has emerged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as [1]:

“… the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

The Salton Sea straddles Riverside and Imperial Counties, where the population is predominantly Hispanic and Latino, including the estimated 2 million unauthorized immigrants that make up 10% of the total population [2],[3]. The median household income is around $49,000, compared to California’s median $61,000 [4]. Within the cities closest to the Sea, this number drops to less than $35,000 (see figure below). Additionally, more than 20% of children in Imperial County are diagnosed with asthma, versus just 8% nationally [5]. Clearly, the population surrounding the Salton Sea is disproportionately affected by both economic instability and health hazards.

SaltonSeaIncome2 2

All of this is not necessarily meant to victimize residents of the Salton Sea region. It may seem like a safe assumption that the people who live there simply can’t afford to live anywhere else. However, many residents have actively chosen to live near the Salton Sea for its solitude and serene atmosphere (and cheap real estate doesn’t hurt either) [6].

Since the 1970s, residents have watched the proposal and demise of many restoration plans at the Salton Sea (more on these in a future post). These plans, developed by various entities disconnected from the Sea, did not give residents a voice and ultimately did not follow through on their promises. The result has been a burgeoning distrust in local agencies and governments, and fear that residents, especially the non-U.S. citizen population, will be left to fend for themselves as the Sea turns to dust [7]. Some evidence of this distrust and inability to affect change lies in the telling statistic of voter registration rates: a meager 35% surrounding the Salton Sea, compared to 71% nationally [8].

Efforts to protect the Salton Sea cannot be successful without the input and action of area residents; and symbiotically, the residents’ healthy livelihoods depend on the Salton Sea’s continued existence and economy, however small. It is up to the Sea’s many stakeholders to capitalize on the opportunity to thoughtfully incorporate local residents throughout the decision-making process. This is essential for the Salton Sea, for its residents, and for environmental justice in southern California.

Written by Holly Mayton


[1] “Environmental Justice,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last updated April 15, 2015, http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/

[2] “State and County Quick Facts,” United States Census Bureau, last revised April 22, 2015, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/06025.html

[3] Laura E. Hill and Hans P. Johnson, “Unauthorized Immigrants in California: Estimates for Counties” (Public Policy Institute of California, 2011)

[4] “State and County Quick Facts.”

[5] “Asthma: Data, Statistics, and Surveillance,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last updated April 23, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/asthma/asthmadata.htm

[6] Elizabeth Varin, “Residents have a love affair with the Salton Sea,” Imperial Valley Press, May 29, 2011, accessed May 12, 2015, http://articles.ivpressonline.com/2011-05-29/salton-sea-beach_29598056

[7] Tarah Vergo, “Changing Perceptions: How We See the Salton Sea, and Why it Matters” (Undergraduate Honors Theses, University of Colorado – Boulder, 2015). Paper 782.

[8] “Report of Registration,” California Secretary of State, last updated February 10, 2013, http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/ror/ror-pages/ror-odd-year-2013/political-sub.pdf