Salton Sea Scents: What’s that smell?

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Algae overtaking the Salton Sea due to high nutrient load(eutrophic conditions). Source: https://desertsearat.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/algal-blooms-fish-die-offs-oh-my/

In the past few months the Salton Sea has been putting off a worrisome odor with increasing frequency. The smell has been strong enough that the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)[1] has issued odor warnings to people living in the immediate area. For residents of the Coachella Valley, the key questions here are, “What makes the Salton Sea stink?” and “Is that smell dangerous?”

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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”

Salton Sea Food: Tasty Tilapia

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The Salton Sea in the 1930's Source: greetingsfromsaltonsea.com
The Salton Sea in the 1930’s Source: http://www.greetingsfromsaltonsea.com/

The Salton Sea has been many things to a lot of people. It has been a piece of post-apocalyptic landscape, an artist’s muse, and a lesson on water management and habitat restoration. At one point, it was a hot spot for vacations and was even one of the hottest fisheries in California. Imagine that, the Salton Sea as it is now once had enough fish in it that you could catch them without bait. Now, not so much, but that does not mean you cannot fish at the Salton Sea. There are even groups such as the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association that advocate fishing at the Salton Sea as a wholesome means of entertainment.

So the pressing question on everyone’s mind is “Can I eat fish from the Salton Sea?” More precisely, “Will eating fish from the Salton Sea kill me?”

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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”

Similar Seas: Salt Grass, Shrimp, and Selenium

Many of the predictions and concerns about the future of the Salton Sea are based on historical examples of other salt lakes around the world, and their impacts on local communities—some beneficial, and some disastrous. Three examples of highly saline terminal lakes, the Aral Sea, Owens Lake, and the Great Salt Lake, show some of the possible outcomes for the Salton Sea.

The drying of the Aral Sea has intense negative effects on communities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in terms of local economies, environments, and health. As the sea dried, dust storms and soil loss resulted in desertification of croplands and contamination of surface fresh water. [1] The shoreline retreated by miles, crippling the local economy, which was dependent on fishing and transportation. Due to extensive pesticide usage in the area, the dust from the Aral Sea contains DDT, PCBs, dioxins, and heavy metals, which have been found at high levels in pregnant and nursing women in Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan. [2] Public health studies in the area have found widespread thyroid abnormalities, as well as lung malformations in children. [3]
Continue reading “Similar Seas: Salt Grass, Shrimp, and Selenium”

People and Prosperity

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.”

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