Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea with No Restoration Project

Published: May 1, 2006
Authors: Michael Cohen, Karen Hyun
Pages: 60

Update: New Volume Released September 2014

Hazards Toll finds the declining Salton Sea will impose massive public health and environmental costs on local residents and Californians. The report argues that the continued failure to protect and preserve the Salton Sea, worsening air quality and the loss of valuable ecological habitat – combined with diminished recreational revenue and property devaluation – could cost as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years. Read the report

Health, economic, and environmental costs would be catastrophic

The Salton Sea is shrinking, and without a restoration project it will transform from California’s largest lake into an economic, health, and environmental hazard. The Sea’s 75-year crash-course is detailed in a report by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think-tank.

“Failing to act on behalf of the Salton Sea will have dire consequences,” said Michael J. Cohen, lead author of Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea with No Restoration Project. “California must implement a restoration plan to combat the future problems of a shrinking Sea. Failure to do so will mean nothing less than disaster for the health of the region’s inhabitants, wildlife, and growing economy,” Cohen said.

According to the report, the Salton Sea’s surface elevation will drop by more than five feet in just the next 12 years. In 2018, due to the 2003 water-transfer agreements and changes in Mexico, inflows to the Sea will decrease dramatically, causing the Sea to reach a critical tipping point. Among the devastating changes:

  • Between 2018 and 2030, the Sea will drop an additional 20 feet;
  • By 2021, rising lake salinity will mean the loss of nearly all fish life. Tens of thousands of resident and migratory birds will lose breeding and roosting habitats and food sources;
  • By 2036, the southern shore will have receded 4 to 5 miles, and the shrinking Sea will expose more than 130 square miles of dusty lakebed to the desert winds—an area nearly three times the size of San Francisco;
  • In 60 years, the Sea will be little more than a shallow algal/bacterial soup.

“Exposing 134 square miles of lakebed to desert winds could kick up an average of 86 tons per day of talcum powder-like dust into the region’s air,” said HAZARD co-author Karen Hyun. “This dust is a respiratory irritant, and Imperial County is already home to the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in California.”

According to Julia Levin, State Policy Director for Audubon California, the impact on fish and birds will be staggering. “This analysis demonstrates that we must do something to protect the Salton Sea,” she said. “Without restoration, we will lose almost all fish life and tens of thousands of resident and migratory birds.”

In September 2006, California is expected to release its report on Salton Sea restoration options and alternatives. The State is required to submit a preferred alternative to the California Legislature by December 31, 2006.

“California has a clear choice: do nothing for the Sea now and suffer the consequences, or fund a restoration project that protects the ecosystem and promotes economic development,” said Cohen.

The Pacific Institute is dedicated to protecting the natural world, encouraging sustainable development, and improving global security. Founded in 1987 and based in downtown Oakland, the Institute provides independent research and policy analysis on issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security.

Download the full report :
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low resolution (2.31 MB)

Download the four-page executive summary.