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”

Harsh Habitat: The Endangered Desert Pupfish

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Several previous posts have discussed the ecological importance of the Salton Sea, particularly its effect on migratory birds. However, the Salton Sea is also home to a much less obvious endangered species, the tiny desert pupfish. Desert pupfish, which are less than 3” long fully grown, are an unusual species due to their incredible tolerance for extreme water conditions. The desert pupfish can survive at salinities of up to 70 g/L—more than double the salt concentration of seawater.[1] This has historically allowed the desert pupfish to live in saline lakes, rivers, and marshes throughout the deserts of California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Mexico.

Desert Pupfish, Cyprinodon macularius, John Rinne

Continue reading “Harsh Habitat: The Endangered Desert Pupfish”

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
Figure 1. Map of the Torres-Martinez reservation and surrounding area. Click to enlarge. Obtained from…

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”

Sink or Swim (or Float): Water Quality and Salinity

Can you swim in the Salton Sea?

You are going to the Salton Sea this weekend. It’s the desert; it’s going to be really hot, so you want to know if you will be able to cool off in the water. Considering the massive fish die-offs and the occasional nasty odor for which the Salton Sea is notorious, you might be concerned about the safety of swimming in the water. You probably want to know the answer to two questions:

First question: Can you swim in the Salton Sea?

Answer: Of course you can! It’s full of water, it reaches a depth of 50 ft., and there are plenty of crowd-free beaches. Not only can you swim in the sea, but you can also float really well. There are approximately 55 grams of salt per liter of water (g L-1). This salinity is higher than the ocean, which has ~33 g L-1; thus the water is more dense and, with no waves, the relaxation potential is greater [1].

Second question: Should you swim in the Salton Sea?

Continue reading “Sink or Swim (or Float): Water Quality and Salinity”

A Thirsty Sea

Located in an extremely arid region, the Salton Sea is subject to high temperatures and low precipitation. Extreme evaporation alone causes the water level at the Sea to decrease 5.4 ft. every year [1]. Historically, the majority of the water inflows at the Sea have been from diversions of the Colorado River, inputs from Mexico, and agricultural discharges from Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys. Without these vital inflows, the depth of the Sea will quickly decrease causing release of contaminants currently present at the bottom of the lake and increase in salinity to even higher levels. The current salinity at the Sea is about 54 g/L which is much higher than the salinity in the ocean which is on average 35 g/L. This high level of salinity will affect the habitability for fish at the lake where only tilapia species have been able to survive despite massive die offs.

Continue reading “A Thirsty Sea”