Desalting the Sea: Part 1

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Much like the Salton Sea, many inland bodies of water suffer from rising salinity, which can harm biota and prevent beneficial water use. This salinization occurs when soil, which contains salts and minerals, is mobilized from clearing natural vegetation or when fresh water is diverted for irrigation. [1] As irrigation water and drinking water sources become increasingly salty, different solutions become necessary to recover freshwater. Saudi Arabia is the world’s leader in desalination, which is the industrial process of removing salt from water, with 50% of the nation’s drinking water recovered from seawater. [2] At the Salton Sea, desalination is being explored as a part of habitat restoration efforts. Continue reading “Desalting the Sea: Part 1”

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 Torres-Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians

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The Torres-Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians has resided in the northern region of the Salton basin since 1876, when President Ulysses S. Grant officially established their tribe through an executive order. Members of the modern day Torres-Martinez Band have a large investment in the Salton Sea, literally. Over 10,000 acres of their Native American Reservation, nearly half of the total checker-boarded 24,800 acres, lie under the surface of the Sea, unreachable by the tribe until the water line recedes (Figure 1). However, the story of this underwater acreage is often reported incorrectly.

Obtained from http://www.epa.gov/air/particles/designations/2006standards/rec/letters/T_Torres_Martinez_Tribal_Council_CMT.pdf
Figure 1. Map of the Torres-Martinez reservation and surrounding area. Click to enlarge. Obtained from http://www.epa.gov/air/particles/designations/2…

When the Salton Sea was formed in 1905, the Torres-Martinez did not own much, if any of the affected land. Rather in 1909, an amendment to the Mission Indian Relief Act granted the Torres-Martinez an additional 12,000 acres of land, 9,000 of which were beneath the newly formed Salton Sea. However, this was not meant to be a practical joke played by the federal government. Based on the evaporation rate of the Sea at the time, most people expected the land to be dry and available to the tribe within 25 years [1].

Then, agriculture in the Salton Sea region began to take off in the years following, and natural runoff and irrigation drainage from the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys has kept most of the Torres-Martinez land submerged. Continue reading “The Torres-Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians”

Response to SSRREI

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Last week, Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) released a draft of a proposal developed to be presented to the State of California. This proposal, named the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative (SSRREI) is different from previous remediation proposals submitted on behalf of the Salton Sea by various groups. This proposal in particular does not merely ask for a large sum of money, but delineates just how the state can fund the project and recover its investment. Continue reading “Response to SSRREI”

The Value of the Sea

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When deciding whether it is useful to invest resources in a public good, one must compare costs and returns. If the returns outweigh the costs and risks, then we would be better off by allocating resources to the investment. What if such public or private good already exists, such as a part of nature, and we ask ourselves: Is the value of maintenance greater than the cost of upkeep? Or can we do better by developing it into something else?

Think of the Grand Canyon, a US national park that had close to 4.6 million visitors in 2013 [1]. Consider the economic benefits of those visitors and the price of preserving the park in its natural state. What if, instead, we could develop the Grand Canyon to build malls and casinos? Would it bring in more revenue? Many would argue, with reason, that given the uniqueness of the national park, the Grand Canyon in its natural state is a more valuable resource than in any other form.

Value is usually gauged by market prices. Given that the Grand Canyon is not a market good with a price tag, what is its value? Economists have long thought about ways to elicit the value of non-market goods, paving the way for the field of environmental valuation [2] . Many valuation methods have been used to produce estimates of existence and use value of natural habitats. These estimates often provide robust lower bound measures of worth that are high enough to justify the existence, maintenance or development of new parks, beaches, forests, etc. Economists have found that value can be determined by the prices people are willing to pay to visit a place, or how much they would pay to preserve it (even if they do not intend to visit) and by taking into account how changes in environmental quality affect wildlife, human health and worker productivity [3].

So, what do economists say about the value of the Salton Sea? Continue reading “The Value of the Sea”

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?”