The $383 Million Plan to Save California's Artificial Desert 'Sea'
Picture a beach next to a blue lake under the bright California skies, its water twinkling as the sun catches gentle waves, and birds cruising on the thermals above. As you walk towards the lake, you see that the water levels are low, leaving behind cracked and dry brown mud below the white beach. When you reach what looks like sand from afar, your feet make a crunching sound. You realize it's thousands—no, millions—of bones snapping beneath your sneakers, from fish that were washed ashore, too many for even the birds or wild animals to consume. Wind blows toxic dust into the air from the shoreline, a sulphury smell rises up from the lake, and you realize why the shore is littered with rusted, broken, abandoned structures, and the only human here is you. But if you squint, you could see what it once was—and what it could be again.
This is the Salton Sea.
In December, it will receive its final water transfer from the Colorado River, its only lifeline. After that, it will begin to dry up. Left to its own devices, it would disappear completely. But the state of California plans to help it survive: It's investing $383 million over the next decade to save the Salton Sea—in much reduced form.
This fake lake was created by accident, is heavily polluted, and can't survive on its own. Why bother to save this strange place?
Because not saving it would be even worse.
Located southeast of Los Angeles and directly south of Joshua Tree National Park, the sea is an artificial replacement of an ancient natural lake called Cahuilla. The lake appeared and disappeared over the millennia at intervals of 400 or 500 years depending on how much water it received from the Colorado River, writes George Kennan in his 1917 book The Salton Sea; an account of Harriman's fight with the Colorado River.
The native Cahuilla Indians told Kennan that the lake, located 232 feet below sea level, would periodically fill with water, turning the region into a useful wetland. At its fullest, it covered 2000 square miles and was 300 feet deep. But then it would slowly evaporate in the burning desert sun, its waning waters too salinated by naturally concentrated salts in the landscape to be of use to the Cahuilla. From at least 1540 to 1905, it was completely dry, as many weary '49ers, headed to California during the Gold Rush, could attest.
In 1900, the California Development Company, bankrolled by Harriman's railroad, brought irrigation to the desert. It diverted the Colorado River's water to the Imperial Valley, which sits directly south of the Salton Sea near the U.S.-Mexico border.
It was a bold, impetuous move—and one that paid off. Irrigation canals turned the desert fertile by providing water for farmers. "If anyone had then ventured to predict that this dried-up bed of the Gulf of California, this hot, sterile, and apparently irreclaimable desert would eventually become a beautiful, cultivated valley, producing cotton, barley, alfalfa, dates, melons, and fruit, to the value of 10 or 15 million dollars a year, he would have been regarded as a visionary enthusiast, if not a desert-crazed monomaniac," Kennan writes.
Everything changed in 1905. An extra-snowy winter caused massive snow melt in the spring, and the Colorado River swelled, overwhelming the irrigation channels. Engineers spent months attempting—and failing—to hold the river back by building dikes and bringing in truckloads of earth to dam it. By the time they quelled the flood, a huge amount of water had already flowed into the basin of Lake Cahuilla. This was the birth of the Salton Sea.
In ensuing decades, the sea only grew larger thanks to agricultural runoff, which also deposited salts, minerals, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in the seabed. Some saw tourism potential in the rising waters, stocking the sea with tilapia and building resorts, restaurants, and homes along the coastline. Just a few hours' drive from Hollywood, the sea was advertised as a "paradise in the desert" or a working-man's Palm Springs. Small towns popped up on its shores: Bombay Beach. Salton Sea Beach. Desert Shores.
In the 1950s, it became a playground for the growing California middle class. Stars like the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono especially loved it; the latter became its champion. After Bono's death in 1998, his widow, Mary, told CNN that he had "wanted his legacy to be saving the Salton Sea." A national wildlife refuge in the area is now named after him.
But the heyday of the Salton Sea didn't last long. As the populations of western states grew, they needed water—not just for crops but for homes, lawns, golf courses, hospitals, and industries. And for that water, they turned to the 1450-mile-long Colorado River, which passes through seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. Forty million people depend on the Colorado. Over the decades, so much water has been siphoned from the river that in most years, it no longer flows to the Gulf of California, as it did for millions of years (with a brief pause, geologically speaking, to create Lake Cahuilla).
Considering these pressures, the Salton Sea is a low priority. Its receding shores have left behind ghost towns, dead trees, toxic dust, and rotting fish.
The decision to cut off the Salton Sea from the Colorado River comes out of a 2003 deal between southern California water authorities and various parties, following an earlier lawsuit; for years, states have been grappling over water allotments from the Colorado River, and California has long been accused by other states of taking more than its fair share. That deal allowed for water for the Salton through 2017. When the last water transfer of 38 billion gallons goes through in December, the Salton will dry up faster than ever.
There are three reasons why this is a problem. First, as the lake bed becomes exposed, the fine particulates in the mud there will be blown into the already dusty skies of Imperial County. Since so much of the water that made up the lake came from agricultural runoff, that dust likely contains accumulated pesticides, DDT, and heavy metals. (The extent of the contamination is still not known, and researchers are just beginning to look at what's in the dust.)
"Those [exposed areas] are creating far more dust than the regular residential desert," Salton City resident Kerry Morrison tells Mental Floss. Morrison is the executive director of EcoMedia Compass, a nonprofit environmental organization, and president of the West Shores Chamber of Commerce, which represents several Salton Sea communities. "During dust storms, I've been down there [by the shore]. It's major," he says.
The dust is wrecking people's lungs. Residents of Imperial County have an asthma rate three times higher than the state average, and the county now has California's highest rate of asthma-associated ER visits.
"It is a crisis. It's an emergency. It needs to be dealt with," Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Comité Cívico Del Valle, an outreach and educational organization in the Imperial Valley, told The Desert Sun.
That crisis, like many of those exacerbated by climate change, is borne by those with the fewest resources. "This is an economic justice issue. The people affected are poor disadvantaged Hispanic communities," Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the water-focused environmental nonprofit Pacific Institute, tells Mental Floss. In a recent study, Pacific Institute estimates that the exposed lake bed could put an additional 100 tons of dust into the air per day through 2045, leading to an estimated cost of almost $40 billion in healthcare due to asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease, which are worsened by air pollution.
Economically, the communities along the Sea are also in decline. The area used to compete with Yosemite for visitors, often besting the National Park for tourists. "We've lost half of our businesses in 10 years," Morrison says. "That's not a future to believe in." But locals think it could still be an economic driver again, albeit a more modest one, if the Sea were returned to even a version of its former glory.
Birds also love the "stinky sea": In the 112 years it has been with us, the Salton has become a major stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway, which runs from Alaska to Patagonia. But the water becomes more saline as levels drop, and fish die. And without fish, the birds who have come to depend on the area die too.
In the past, they would have had plenty of other options when Lake Cahuilla dried up, but California, like many states, has bulldozed, filled in, or developed most of its natural wetland areas—about 95 percent of them. There aren't other nearby waters for tired birds as they fly thousands of miles along their migration routes. The Salton Sea might be a smelly, salty lake to us, but to the more than 420 species of birds observed there, it's an oasis, as Audubon California notes.
But not all hope is lost for the Salton Sea. There is a 10-year plan from the state of California that is gearing up as the imminent cutoff of the lake from the Colorado River looms. The plan allocates $383 million over a decade (with an initial $80 million in funding already available) to deal with all three issues: dust, birds, and the local economy.
Under this plan, a little more than half of the Salton Sea will remain, surrounded by interconnected ponds, some as large as 500 acres. Each pond will be engineered, with berms to keep water inside and culverts connecting them. They'll be deep enough for fish to reproduce within.
According to Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the state agency California Natural Resources, "The new plan builds habitat in an incremental manner as the sea recedes. It provides a less saline habitat—that helps with the fisheries habitat and the fish-eating birds. It also covers up the exposed playa—that helps with the dust issue." Over the 10-year period, about 40,000 acres of playa—flat, dried-out desert basin that water easily evaporates from—will be covered by water. That's about two-thirds of the area that's projected to become exposed as the Salton Sea dries up.
A healthier and more pleasant sea will be better for the locals and might encourage visitors, Wilcox tells Mental Floss: "It'll look different to people, but I don't think the birds will care."
This fall, California State Resources began digging out the playa to create the first ponds. Whatever the agency learns can be used to make the future ponds as effective as possible.
Morrison calls the 10-year-plan "a good start" that provides an "ark for the animals and gives them a chance." But he says it's not enough, especially because it's not going to improve air quality to the level it needs. He points out that there's no real plan for dust mitigation where people live.
He'd like to see some of the almost $400 million spent on bringing water into the Salton Sea—actual salt water from the Gulf of California. Since the 1970s, some locals have advocated for constructing a 115-mile, border-crossing channel called the Coyote Canal. Part of the canal, covering about one-third of the distance, already exists, serving ranches and farms in Mexico. Under this plan, the canal would be extended from the gulf to a small semi-dry lake called Laguna Salada, and then continue another 40 miles north to the Salton Sea. Because the sea is so far below sea level, the canal would have a downhill run. The plan's advocates see it as an opportunity to restore the Salton Sea to its former glory.
Construction cost estimates vary, but Morrison argues they are similar to what is already being spent. Continuing the canal would involve the Mexican government, ranchers, and farmers whose land would be crossed, but Morrison says both the government and the ranchitos are enthusiastic. Having a water source—even a salty one—would be a boon for the region, including for the native Cocopah people whose culture was focused around the lower Colorado, on both sides of the Mexican border, for 4000 years. Currently, Americans use all the water before it reaches the Mexican border and the Cocopah's land. You can see how its proponents envision it working in the video below.
Morrison also points out that existing geothermal plants on the shores of the Salton Sea could use excess energy to desalinate the seawater, making a true oasis in the desert—complete with fresh water. There's already an experimental program, run by Sephton Geothermal, that does just that, and there are proposals for adding another geothermal plant to those that already exist there.
Both the canal construction and the desalination program were once included in a more ambitious—and more expensive—restoration plan for the Salton Sea area, but neither made it into the current plan.
But geoengineering is harder than nature makes it look. One cautionary tale is the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, it's now a ghost of its former self. For decades during the Soviet era, the rivers that fed it were diverted and dammed for agriculture. It's now "a memory of those who knew it and loved it and saw it slip away," Michael Edelstein writes in his book Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability.
Owens Lake is another, more local example. The 200-square-mile lake, which had existed for 800,000 years at the foot of the Sierras, was sucked dry by thirsty Los Angelenos in a little more than a decade. By 1926, it was mostly gone. Dust became a problem there, too. A billion dollars later, most of the carcinogenic dust has been mitigated with engineering projects similar to those planned for the Salton Sea. But Owens Lake, once called the American Switzerland, is gone forever.
Will the Salton Sea go the way of the Aral Sea or Owens Lake? Or will the 10-year rescue plan lead to a success story?
As construction begins on the ponds, one thing is for sure: The Salton Sea as we have known it will be gone. "We are looking at a smaller, but more sustainable Salton Sea," Wilcox says. "It will have a smaller footprint, but it's something we can sustain over time."
Editor's note: This story has been updated.