Salton Sea and the New Normal

Last month, Salton Sea Sense had the opportunity to host and hear from Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate at the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute aims to provide science-based leadership and outreach to inform public water policy, and Cohen has been working specifically on the Salton Sea since 1998. He recently published an excellent Institute blog post on the current “fortunes and prospects” at the Sea, which is available here.

In his talk at UC Riverside, Cohen outlined some of the challenges that continue to face the Salton Sea. One of those challenges is the perception of Sea as an “artificial” ecosystem, which we have previously blogged about. Cohen pointed out that the whole of the State of California’s water is part of a managed system that includes man-made aqueducts, reservoirs and pumps. The Salton Sea is an essential part of this system as one of the last remaining aquatic habitat options in the southwestern United States for birds on the Pacific Flyway. Continue reading “Salton Sea and the New Normal”

The Other Changing Sea Level

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In his final State of the Union address, President Obama put more emphasis on climate change than ever before [1]. Scientists no longer dispute the fact that humans are having an impact on the earth, and global leaders have come to an agreement that involves taking actions to fight climate change and mitigate its negative effects [2].

The impacts of climate change are already visible around the world, from extreme storms and fluctuating temperatures, to long droughts and threatened Continue reading “The Other Changing Sea Level”

Mexico and the Salton Sea

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So far, this blog has discussed extensively the ecological and socio-economic consequences of allowing the Salton Sea to dry up. The decline in the air quality around the Salton Sea due to exposed playa is a problem that will extend to many cities in the southwestern U.S., the economic burden of allowing the Sea to dry will be shared among all Californians, and water allocations that impact the Sea are decided by intra-state agreements. Without a doubt, the Salton Sea is a complex system that must involve not only the local communities, but also different states and even nations. An important player that has largely been left out of discussions thus far is our neighbor to the south, Mexico. Continue reading “Mexico and the Salton Sea”

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”

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”

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley: A Tale of Two Seas

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea has a long and sordid past. The Salton Sea is located in the Imperial Valley, a region of California where the dominant economy is the production of crops. In order to create this farming oasis in the middle of the desert, 917,540 million gallons of water a year must be shunted to the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River. This is the beginning of the story of how an agriculture revolution has created and changed the largest body of water in California.

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Row irrigation in Imperial Valley, Calif. 2009. Photo by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York.

The Salton Sea was originally formed in 1905 when massive rain and snowmelt overwhelmed the dams designed to contain the Colorado River and poured into the empty Salton sink. The dams were repaired quickly, but the Sea had already filled. By the 1930s water levels had noticeably dropped and most believed that the sea would naturally dry up. However, around the same time, cotton farming and the massive water shuttling began in the Imperial Valley [1], refilling the Sea with agricultural run-off. Continue reading “Agriculture in the Imperial Valley: A Tale of Two Seas”