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Salton Sea Sense

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

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Agriculture

Natural or Not?

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“Why don’t we just let the Salton Sea dry up and return to its natural state?”

“The California Development Company flooded it. Why don’t they pay to fix it?”

Have you heard any of these questions, or even thought them yourself? You are not alone. Many people who begin to learn about the Salton Sea arrive at these inquisitive conclusions shortly after learning about the “Great Diversion” of 1905. But let us revisit together some historical facts and observations, and ask ourselves, “Is the Salton Sea natural or not?” Continue reading “Natural or Not?”

Skip the Steak & Save the Sea

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Here at Salton Sea Sense we have tried to show that despite all the problems facing the Sea, there is hope. Hope that the Sea can thrive for generations to come, providing habitat for wildlife, continued environmental stability, and potentially increased economic opportunities. But, between the growing California population, the demands of agriculture, the historic drought and the needs of the Sea our water resources are being stretched to the breaking point. In order to meet these demands Californian’s have worked hard to find places to cut water use. This idea has spurred many ideas and catchy slogans, such as don’t wash your car and “go dirty for the drought” or let your lawn go “California Golden.” But by far the largest use of water in California is not our lawns or even our almonds; it is our meat and dairy production. Therefore, the best solution to our water scarcity problem is not found in our backyards, but at the end of our forks.

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Table 1. Obtained from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/0…

Meat and dairy production in California consumes 47% of our total water use, where as household water use only accounts for 4% and yes that includes those lawns[i]. The main perpetrator of this water use is one of the feed crops used for cattle: alfalfa, which also happens to be the primary crop grown in the Imperial Valley. Alfalfa uses over 5000 acre feet/year of water, nearly twice as much as the next crop, rice (table 2).* The last United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report from the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management emphasized Continue reading “Skip the Steak & Save the Sea”

Salton Sea Weed: Water and Agriculture in the Imperial Irrigation District

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Man watering Marijuana plants. Source: Huffington Post
Man watering Marijuana plants. Source: Huffington Post

Several months ago, the Torres Martinez tribe announced that they will be growing medical marijuana on tribal lands in the near future.[1] The income from this growing operation could provide the Torres Martinez tribe, and the surrounding area, with a much needed economic boost.[2] However, large-scale growing of the water-intensive marijuana plant may pose an environmental risk in an area already gripped by drought.

Continue reading “Salton Sea Weed: Water and Agriculture in the Imperial Irrigation District”

The Science of Salt

Millions of years ago, dinosaurs walked the Earth and the Salton Trough was at the bottom of the ocean. The Salton Trough was part of the Gulf of California until four million years ago when sediment from the Colorado River built up and closed the gap.1 Today, there are 150 miles between the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California, but evidence of their former connection can be found in the soil.

The land around the Salton Sea is composed of minerals of marine origin; many of these minerals are salts. A salt is a compound made up of positively (cation) and negatively (anion) charged ions. Sodium chloride, known as table salt, is the primary salt in the ocean and it dissolves readily in water to form a sodium cation and a chlorine anion. Other chemical components of seawater include magnesium, calcium, and potassium cations and sulfate anions. The Salton Sea has many of the ions of seawater in addition to phosphate and nitrate nutrients from fertilizers that are flushed into the Sea.2 Together, the total dissolved salt content of a body of water is called salinity. Continue reading “The Science of Salt”

A New Type of Farming

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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? Continue reading “A New Type of Farming”

Water We Fighting About?

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The primary issue at the Salton Sea is the declining water level due to reduced water inflows and excessive evaporative losses. The main consequence of this is an increase in salinity, which in turn creates a sequence of other complications. The increasing nutrient concentration causes a dense growth of phytoplankton and plant life which deprives the Sea of oxygen and causes massive fish die offs. As the fish die, many bird species find it difficult to survive. In addition, as the Sea dries it exposes playa, which releases dust containing dangerous chemical compounds buried at the bottom of the Sea from decades of agricultural runoff.

It is evident that the consequences of allowing the Salton Sea to dry are quite disastrous and that they affect the aesthetic and ecological integrity of the Sea. It might seem that the key to preventing the Salton Sea from drying up lies in simply increasing the amount of water that goes into the Sea, but where to get the water from? That is a question that is far from simple and one that might not have a reasonable answer.

rqenbghowvxb7m4lltieWith the current water disputes over Colorado River water Continue reading “Water We Fighting About?”

Myths and Mistruths, Vol. 2

Welcome back for some more myth debunking! Last time we talked about the unlikely possibility of a ship full of pearls being sunk at the bottom of the Salton Sea. But I also mentioned several other prevalent myths or mistruths that other posts on this blog have now addressed:

“The Salton Sea is not safe to swim in.” ——————————————– BUSTED!

“It is a toxic dump created by agricultural pesticides.” ——————— BUSTED!

Geothermal energy is expensive and not competitive.” ——————- BUSTED!

“The Salton Sea is a marginal ecological and economical resource.” – BUSTED!

Perhaps one of the most tossed-around misunderstandings surrounding the Sea is this:

“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.”

While this argument is convenient for those who consider the Sea a lost cause, it is all bark and no bite. Continue reading “Myths and Mistruths, Vol. 2”

Fish Bones and Game of Thrones

The Salton Sea: once a prized weekend destination, now a dilapidated afterthought in the middle of the desert. The Sea lost its appeal to many people after it became highly saline and oxygen-deprived from agricultural run-off. These conditions lead to massive fish kills that created shores composed of fish bones and seasonal pungent odors. Today, the fate of the Sea is uncertain. On its current trajectory, with the impending reduction of water due to the Quantification Settlement Agreement and with no plan to prevent its demise, the Salton Sea will become an ecological disaster and public health burden. Here at Salton Sea Sense we all agree that something needs to be done about the Salton Sea. However, there is a lot of debate about who should be stepping up to take responsibility to make the decision and to fund restoration projects. The problem is there are so many different parties involved in the Salton Sea that it is impossible to determine who is most affected by the Sea and its fish bone beaches.

You could say that keeping track of all the stakeholders in the Salton Sea is almost as confusing as trying to keep track of all the characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. In honor of the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones, we give you: Game of Bones (cue theme song). Continue reading “Fish Bones and Game of Thrones”

A Dusty Future

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.
Continue reading “A Dusty Future”

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