Issues We Work On
California’s Salton Sea is a fertile oasis in the hostile desert of southeastern California, adopted by millions of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. As California’s largest lake, it stretches across almost 35 miles in a remote, below sea-level valley in the southeastern corner of the state. The Sea faces a host of challenges, including a declining water supply, rising salinity, very high levels of nutrients that generate excessive algal growth and very low oxygen levels, and, most worrisome of all, general indifference – if not outright hostility – from state decision-makers, some of whom think the Sea and its problems will disappear if they continue to ignore it.
The Salton Sea challenges our conceptions about conservation priorities. It is a heavily human-altered landscape and often smells from the overabundance of life and death it hosts – traits that make it difficult to embrace and champion. Yet this agricultural drainage water, rich with the fertilizers applied to fields, has created an extraordinarily productive ecosystem at the Sea. Fish and invertebrates swim through its turbid waters and dig through its rich sediments, feeding enormous numbers of pelicans, cormorants, skimmers, herons, egrets, rails, terns, grebes, ducks, geese, and many other birds. In all, more than 420 species of birds – the second highest bird count in the country – have been spotted at the Sea and its environs. Audubon California calls it “one of the most important places for birds in the Western United States.” The Salton Sea offers invaluable bird habitat, all the more important since California has lost more than 90 percent of its pre-development wetlands, leaving the birds with few other places to go.
Last October, California recognized its responsibility to protect the Salton Sea and set admirable short-term habitat and dust suppression goals. This year’s budget contains $80 million for Salton Sea projects over the next three years, a small fraction of the total investment needed but an excellent start. California’s statutory and contractual responsibilities arise from actions intended to improve California’s water supply reliability as well as long-standing protections for various listed species, responsibilities that commit California to protect regional air quality and natural resources at the Salton Sea.
As of summer 2016, almost a year has passed since the state hired a new Assistant Secretary of Salton Sea Policy and set aggressive acreage goals for habitat and dust suppression projects at the Sea. To date, California has yet to translate its commitments into actual projects on the ground, or even shown much progress in developing habitat or funding plans or an implementation schedule. Unlike the challenges of protecting habitat and human health in most of the water-starved West, the greatest obstacle to Salton Sea action is not a lack of water but rather a lack of political will. With $80 million in the budget and a dedicated effort from state staff and local stakeholders, we could celebrate the completion of more than a thousand acres of high-quality, dust-suppressing habitat projects by the end of next year. This short-term success is well within reach, but it requires dedicated project management, urgency, and commitment, all of which have been in short supply so far.
The Pacific Institute has played an active role at the Sea for more than 18 years. The Institute has produced three leading reports on the Sea, including the September 2014 Hazard’s Toll, outlining the importance of the Sea and the likely economic consequences of failing to act on its behalf. We have developed restoration concepts for the Sea, participated on the state’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee and in the current Salton Sea Management Program workgroups, and we continue to work actively with state agencies and local stakeholders to get real habitat constructed on the ground to benefit at-risk species and to diminish the amount of dust blowing off of the Sea’s exposed lakebed. Meanwhile, we continue to promote the importance of the Sea for the state’s water supply reliability. See the links below for more information on our Salton Sea efforts.
Links to Salton Sea Resources
Salton Sea Import/Export Plans (2015)
Water Program Senior Research Associate Michael Cohen has written several blogs and opinion pieces on the Salton Sea:
Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea
New Hope for the Salton Sea
Another Grim Day for the Salton Sea
State Not Meeting Salton Sea Responsibilities
Save the Salton Sea, with Gary Wyatt
Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea (2014)
Letters to State Water Resources Control Board
In collaboration with other organizations, the Institute has recommended several specific actions to accelerate California’s implementation of habitat and dust suppression projects at the Salton Sea.