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, to date, a glaring disconnect between the rate of change and the rate of efforts to address that change.
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.
California’s statutory and contractual responsibilities to the Salton Sea arise from the state’s commitments to facilitate the nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer, moving water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County. In 2020, the water transfer supplied more than 40% of the county’s total water use, providing a stable water supply despite the state’s continuing drought. The state’s commitments are intended to improve California’s water supply reliability and protect public health and the fish and wildlife historically dependent on the Salton Sea.
After a series of fits and starts, California affirmed its responsibility to protect the Salton Sea in October 2015, as 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. In 2017, the state’s Salton Sea Management Program began to take shape, with the release of a since-revised 10-Year Plan for the Salton Sea. In 2020, the state constructed 755 acres of dust suppression projects on playa exposed as the Sea has shrunk by more than 24,000 acres since the water transfer began. In January 2021, construction began on the fully-funded Species Conservation Habitat project near the New River delta. In May 2021, the governor included an additional $220 million for Salton Sea projects as part of the Water Resilience and Drought Package.
The Pacific Institute has played an active role at the Sea for more than 25 years. We have 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 the current Salton Sea Management Program workgroups, and 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 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.
In October 2019 and again in April 2022, the Pacific Institute and the University of California, Riverside co-hosted the Salton Sea Summit, a multi-disciplinary conference held in Palm Desert, California See saltonseasummit.org for more information about the conferences, including presentations and videos.
The Pacific Institute is hosting a series of Salton Sea webinars, highlighting information about community engagement, water quality, and hydrology, among other topics. See pacinst.org/videos for recordings of previous webinars.
At the 40th Annual Getches-Wilkinson Center Summer Conference, Michael Cohen spoke on “When the River Meets the Sea.” View the presentation slides here.
At the 2017 Martz Summer Conference in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Cohen described the challenges facing the Salton Sea and the issues with California’s limited activities to date.
Check our announcements page for notice of upcoming staff presentations on the Salton Sea and other timely topics.
Current Information on the Salton Sea
Salton Sea Import/Export Plans (2015)
Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen Issues Statement Regarding Imperial Irrigation District’s Approval of Landmark Salton Sea Agreement
Fits and Starts at 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)
Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea with No Restoration Project (2006)
Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea (1999)
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.March 2019 Comment Letter on the Progress of Phase 1 of the Salton Sea Management Program.
January 2019 Comment Letter on the Proposed North Lake Project at the Salton Sea.April 2015 Comment Letter on the
Status of the Salton Sea Management Program.