Salton Sea – A Time for Action

By Michael Cohen

A version of this essay was originally printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 19, 2007.

The Salton Sea lies 470 miles southeast of San Francisco, a vast, cursed salt lake far from the minds of most in the Bay Area. Part of the Salton Sea’s curse is that it is so distant, so different from most people’s experiences. Today, temperatures at the sea are likely more than 40 degrees hotter than San Francisco. Irrigated fields stretch for miles to the north and south of the sea. To the east and west, mesquite and creosote bush dot the landscape, before the Chocolate and Santa Rosa mountains rise sharply from the desert floor. The total population of Imperial County, locus of most of the sea, is about a tenth that of Alameda County, despite having almost six times the land area. If the Salton Sea – roughly the size of San Francisco Bay – were next to San Francisco or to Sacramento, its problems would have been addressed long ago.

Instead, conditions at the sea grow ever worse.

The Salton Sea is a terminal lake: millions of tons of salts, as well as thousands of tons of excess fertilizer and other contaminants, run off and through irrigated fields to concentrate in the lake. Already a third saltier than the ocean, the lake has begun a period of transition in which, due to declining inflows and relentless evaporation, its volume will decrease by two-thirds and its salinity will quadruple. For the next decade, this transition will be relatively gradual. Thereafter, conditions will change very rapidly.

You might ask, “So what?”

If nothing is done, the shrinking lake will have no habitat value for the more than 400 species of birds – ranging from brown and white pelicans to ducks and grebes to avocets to egrets – that use the lake and its environs, often in tremendous numbers. The shrinking lake will expose more than 130 square miles of lakebed, greatly increasing the amount of talc-like, choking dust that blows through the region, harming children, the elderly and others. Imperial County already suffers from the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the state – three times higher than the state average. The shrinking sea will dramatically degrade air quality, harming people as well as wildlife and crops.

For more than 40 years, studies have been written, projects have been proposed, the sea’s imminent collapse predicted, yet they prompted almost no action at all. The contentious 2003 negotiations about transferring Colorado River water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego finally focused attention on the lake’s problems, and prompted the current effort to solve them. In May, after more than three years of deliberations, the California Resources Agency released a Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Preferred Alternative, with an estimated cost of $8.9 billion.

With SB187, the Legislature will soon decide whether to spend $47 million on initial consensus work on the plan. This initial work is critically important and funding should be approved. With it, we can begin – for the first time – to put restoration projects on the ground, generating real benefits for wildlife and reducing air quality impacts. This initial work will also inform future restoration efforts as the project is scaled up.

Consensus has yet to develop on the governing authority for the restoration project. Many residents of the area are demanding local control to maximize economic development, a demand that needs to be balanced against the state’s interest in protecting wildlife and public health. Resolution of this contentious issue should not delay implementation of consensus items. After many, many years of delays and deliberations, we may finally see action taken on behalf of the Salton Sea. We should not squander this opportunity.

Michael Cohen is a senior associate with the Pacific Institute and a former member of the Resources Agency’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee.