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As we discussed in the last agricultural post, one of the largest problems facing the Salton Sea has come masked as the solution for the California water crisis. Water conservation incentives for farmers are one of the principle pillars in the California drought crisis management, with constant conservation messages and monetary incentives to reduce water use. When it comes to agriculture, many of these measures are focused on providing subsidies for farms to adopt water saving irrigation technology. These include pivot sprinklers, drip irrigation, and soil moisture content measurement devices [1]. The goal of all these tools is to transition farmers away from the ancient and highly inefficient irrigation technique known has flood irrigation. This simple technique involves literally flooding the land with water; this method, while simple, is highly inefficient and results in a large amount of run-off. While this is wasteful in terms of irrigation, it provides the life-breath for the Salton Sea. Without the constant run-off, the Salton Sea will only continue to shrivel, becoming saltier and more nutrient dense each day.

Level basin flood irrigation on wheat. Yuma, Az. 2002 Photo by Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Source:http://photogallery.nrcs.usda.gov/Index.asp
Level basin flood irrigation on wheat. Yuma, Az. 2002 Photo by Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Source:http://photogallery.nrcs.usda.gov/Index.asp

However, does this have to spell the end for the Sea? Or can this situation be capitalized on to bring a new kind of agriculture and revenue to the Imperial Valley? As the salinity level in the Salton Sea continues to increase from its current 55 parts per thousand (ppt) to upwards of 80 ppt in the next couple of years it will reach optimum conditions for the raising and

harvesting of brine shrimp. Brine shrimp Artemia franciscana, also known as sea monkeys (yes, those sea monkeys), thrive in high salinity environments. The cysts (eggs) from these tiny creatures provide a rich food source for other aquatic life and are a valuable commodity for Asian prawn farms. The 30 million prawns raised by one medium-sized operation will consume about 52.3 billion brine shrimp cysts, with the larger operations feeding 100 million tiger prawns a year [2].

Sea monkeys. Obtained from http://www.marineatugent.be/content/news?page=4
Sea monkeys. Obtained from UGent Marine Sciences Center of Excellence.

Currently, the brine shrimp market is dominated by Utah’s Great Salt Lake (with a salinity of 50 ppt to 270 ppt), with revenue ranging from $12 million to $20 million a year. The Salton Sea has several ecological advantages over the Great Salt Lake for brine shrimp production, with the Imperial Valley’s famous mild winter weather being the largest. Brine shrimp eggs are harvested in Utah beginning October 1st and ending January 1st [2]. This leaves the harvest exposed to the huge fluctuations in the Utah winters, which can range from mild temperature to severe blizzards[3]. Winter weather in the Imperial Valley, on the other hand, is famously mild and already allows for the growth of much of the country’s winter vegetables. Utilizing the increase in salinity to develop brine shrimp farming could bring real revenue to a struggling Sea.

The Salton Sea has proven to be an enigma where disasters have created an oasis and solutions have created problems. Cannot these problems become an opportunity for industry, growth and revenue? The Sea has already undergone many identity shifts over the last century, why not one more?

Written by Stacia Dudley


[1] Public Policy Institute of California “Subsidized Agriculture.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Science. Accessed July 2, 2015. https://watershed.ucdavis.edu/myths/subsidized+agriculture/

[2] “Utah Brine Shrimp Feed Asia Industry | Salt Lake Brine Shrimp” Salt Lake Brine Shrimp. Accessed July 2, 2015. http://saltlakebrineshrimp.com/in-the-news/utah-brine-shrimp-feed-asia-industry/

[3] Salt Lake Brine Shrimp. “About Brine Shrimp.” Great Salt Lake. Accessed July 2, 2015. http://saltlakebrineshrimp.com/about-brine-shrimp/