CLOSE
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The $383 Million Plan to Save California's Artificial Desert 'Sea'

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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.

abandoned tire and recliner at salton sea shore
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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).

dead fish on salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

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.

playa and lone tree at salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

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.

pelican flies above salton sea
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
environment
California Startup Pays Users to Consume Less Energy
iStock
iStock

You may know that turning off the lights when leaving a room or lowering the thermostat before bed are smart habits, but with no way to see their immediate impact, they can be hard to keep. OhmConnect is built around the premise that more people would follow through with these actions if they had a little motivation. As Fast Company reports, the San Francisco-based startup rewards California residents for their green choices with real cash.

The mission of the company is to prevent energy grids from using costly and dirty emergency power plants by encouraging customers to conserve power when demand outweighs supply. During “OhmHours,” users receive a text suggesting energy-saving practices. They can choose to opt out or agree to make an effort to lower their consumption. If their usage in the next hour is lower than the average for their home on that type of day (weekdays are compared to the weekday average; weekends to the weekend average) they receive points which can be redeemed for money. The more people participate on a regular basis, the more points they’re able to earn.

Participants in homes equipped with smart devices like a Nest thermostat or Belkin smart switches can program them to automatically consume less during those times. Nearly a fifth of the user base chooses some type of automatic response.

Someone living in a small apartment participating once a week has the potential to make $40 to $50 a year, while a family living in a larger home can earn up to $200. The California energy grid has also reaped the benefits: Since launching in 2014, OhmConnect has saved the state a total of 100 megawatts (the equivalent of not running two emergency power plants at high-demand times). California residents who get their energy through Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, or San Diego Gas & Electric can sign up to participate online. If you don’t live in the state but are interested in the service, you may get a chance to try it out soon: OhmConnect plans to expand to Texas, Toronto, and potentially the East Coast.

[h/t Fast Company]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
7 Eco-Friendly Options for Your Body After Death
iStock
iStock

You drive a hybrid. You eat local. You recycle. But odds are your deathcare choices won’t reflect this eco-friendly lifestyle. Though it’s not likely to be discussed at a funeral, the popular methods of body disposal—traditional burial and cremation—both pose major environmental hazards.

According to the Natural Death Centre, a single cremation uses about as much gas and electricity as a 500-mile road trip. The process also emits around 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, as much as the average American home produces in about six days.

Traditional burial is arguably worse from an environmental perspective: Casket burials and the associated materials use 100,000 tons of steel and 1.5 million tons of concrete each year, as well as some 77,000 trees and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid. There is also worry that some of that carcinogenic embalming fluid eventually leaks into the earth, polluting water and soil.

Historically speaking, the only after-death options available were natural ones, but those fell out of favor in the United States with the rise of the industrial age, embalming, and the professionalization of funeral director as a career. In recent years, natural interment has made a comeback, with promises to protect the planet and pocketbook alike—green burial also happens to be more affordable, on the whole.

Here are seven eco-friendly ways to make your last act on earth a kind one.

1. THE MUSHROOM BURIAL SUIT

Humans love eating mushrooms. Coeico founder and creator of the mushroom burial suit Jae Rhim Lee wants it the other way around. She’s created a pair of head-to-toe “ninja pajamas” lined with special mushroom spores to suit—and eventually consume—a dead body. The mushrooms, she says, are specially trained to devour dead human tissue.

The human body is filled with toxins that can be returned to the atmosphere in cremation and other forms of body disposal. Mushrooms have a knack for absorbing and purifying such toxins—a process known as mycoremediation—leaving the earth cleaner than they found it. Once the tissue is broken down, according to Lee, the mushrooms transmit the nutrients from the body to an intricate network of fungi in the soil that passes the sustenance on to trees. That means your last act could be feeding the forest with your now-purified remains. It’s an appealing thought for the green at heart, even though “eaten by mushrooms” may not be exactly how they pictured going out.

2. AQUAMATION

The slightly wavy surface of blue water
iStock

With aquamation—also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis—the body is placed in a stainless steel vessel filled with a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. A combination of rushing alkaline waters and temperatures around 350°F causes the body to dissolve in essentially the same process that happens to a body left on the earth or in a stream—only what would take months in nature takes about 20 hours in an aquamation pod. By the end, all that’s left is the skeleton, or parts thereof, which is ground up into a white powder with a pearly sheen. The remains are given to the loved ones, who may choose to scatter them like ashes or place them in a biodegradable urn. Advocates say the process emits about a fifth of the carbon dioxide of traditional cremation. Aquamation was legalized in California in late 2017, joining 14 other U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.

3. BODY FARMS

In the early 1970s, anthropologist William Bass wanted to study how bodies decompose naturally. Using donated cadavers, he created a “farm” for forensic anthropologists to study a wide array of body decomposition scenarios. What does it look like if a body rots in a swamp? If it’s eaten by maggots? Crows? Welcome to the body farm, where disturbing dreams come true.

Texas lays claim to the largest body farm in the U.S., located on Freeman Ranch at Texas State University. The body farm is responsible for massive developments in criminal science and thanatology (the study of death); it’s aided in critical discoveries including the “microbial clock”—a process by which time of death can be precisely identified by examining the posthumous microbiome.

Needless to say, the body farm is a huge win for detectives and scientists alike. People can donate their bodies to a local body farm to further research (and save a good chunk of change on interment). There are seven currently operating in the United States, with more planned soon.

4. SKY BURIAL

A vulture flying near a sky burial site in Tibet
Lyle Vincent, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In Tibet and other areas nearby, Buddhists practice a death ritual meant to encourage good karma. They take bodies to charnel grounds where vultures come to eat the flesh, offering back to the world what was taken in life: meat. It's believed that the practice encourages the dead to move along to the next life without being held back by one’s greatest attachment—their physical body. Ritual aside, it’s a practical answer due to the scarcity of wood and usable burial grounds (the rocky earth makes it hard to dig).

5. GREEN BURIAL

For those who would prefer not to be consumed by vulture nor spore, there’s a more traditional option. Green burial looks pretty much like a normal burial, accept for a few important differences. No embalming fluids or toxic chemicals of any kind can be used. The grave is often dug by hand (either by the green burial ground staff or, if they choose, the loved ones themselves). There is no cement plot. Only biodegradable caskets, such as wicker ones, can be used, or the body is simply placed in an unbleached cloth shroud. This allows the corpse to decompose naturally, returning its sustenance to the Earth. Many green burial grounds also act as wildlife refuges, creating safe spaces for animals and native plant life—families can choose from a variety of live, wild grasses and flowers to adorn the grave.

Aside from being environmentally friendly, this is a cheaper option than traditional burial considering the price tags on caskets, embalming, etc. While prices around the country vary, according to Undertaking LA—a mortuary that promotes green burial—the average funeral in Los Angeles is over $8000 not including the burial plot, whereas they offer green burial for under $7000 including the plot itself.

6. SEA BURIAL

Neil Armstrong's widow being presented with the U.S. flag during the astronaut's burial at sea
Neil Armstrong's widow being presented with the U.S. flag during the astronaut's burial at sea
NASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following in the tradition of Vikings, naval officers, and pirates alike, those who loved the ocean in life can return in death with a sea burial. In addition to the countless water-soluble urns on the market, an entire body can be set to sea in designated areas off the U.S. coast. Though some burials involve dropping an entire modified casket to the ocean floor, environmentally inclined businesses like New England Burials at Sea offer more eco-friendly (and affordable) options such as natural burial shrouds hand-sewn by New England sail makers. A full day charter takes your funeral party out to sea, facilitating the open or closed casket service before dropping the body. Companies such as Eternal Reefs can also mix cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to create artificial reefs that support marine life. Not everyone would want to sleep with the fishes, but many sailors consider it the most sacred of exits.

7. RECOMPOSING

A maple leaf on a background of compost
iStock

Body composting, or recomposition, could be the future of green burial—at least once it’s legal. Seattle-based architecture grad Katrina Spade got a lightbulb idea in 2012: Could she create a space and method for returning bodies to the earth naturally, sans concrete, steel, and carcinogens? The answer came in the form of human composting, the process of transforming bodies into soil, naturally.

Farmers have practiced livestock composting for decades. Wood chips and moisture and breeze combine to expedite the natural process of decay into nutrient-rich soil. Spade has begun a pilot project at Washington State University with bodies pledged by elderly and terminally ill fans of her cause.

If and when human composting is legalized, the Urban Death Project dreams of a brick-and-mortar recomposing facility. Families will ceremonially lower the shrouded corpse into the recomposing vessel and cover it with wood chips as they say goodbye. As soon as 30 days later, they can collect the remains, now transformed into (roughly) a cubic yard of soil, which they could then take home and use in their garden.

BONUS: BOG BODIES

Someone wading through a soggy peat marsh, or bog, in Ireland may be in for a real surprise—a perfectly preserved, if oddly tanned, corpse from another century. Why? The peat in the marsh creates a highly acidic environment that preserves flesh. So, while the alkaline waters of aquamation will dissolve a body post-haste, the acids from the bogs give a pH akin to that of vinegar. This acts like a pickling agent, freezing the body in time—some bog bodies are dated back as far as 8000 BCE. Sphagnan, a polymer produced by decaying sphagnum moss, is largely to thank for this phenomenon because of the way it binds to nitrogen and slows the growth of bacteria. The tannins in the peat act as a brown dye giving the bodies their leathery color. OK, it probably isn’t the next big trend in green burial, but bog mummification has been naturally preserving bodies for centuries sans greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals alike.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER