Robert Schrag, California State Wildlife and Game Service
Robert Schrag from the California State Wildlife
and Game Service monitors the fish population in the Salton Sea.
“Right now we’re out gill netting, trying
to find, important information regarding, age, size, weight, reproductive
status and diversity of the species. It’s what we need to know to find
out what’s going on with the fish population.
“Worst-case scenario of the sea - it remains
the way it's going and basically becomes too salty to handle the fish
so that they can reproduce. And if that happens we’re going to lose some
of the fishing eating birds, actually most of the fishing eating birds.
It’s an important part of the ecosystem here.”
POINTS OF VIEW:
Tom Kirk, Salton Sea Authority
The Salton Sea is host to more species of birds than any
other place, save perhaps, for the Gulf Coast of Texas. Half
of all bird species found in the United States can be found
at the Salton Sea, so it’s this massive truck stop,
we like to say, a key location for birds to stop, eat, rest
along their trip either north and south along this Pacific
This Salton Sea is very different than those previous Salton
Seas. It’s not this great lake that becomes massive
and dries up, and massive and dries up. It’s a lake
that’s largely sustained by man’s activities,
In the West, for you to establish a right to water you have
to get to it and use it. The environment, unfortunately,
doesn’t have as much standing as farmers and cities,
particularly along the Colorado River. For every drop of
water being moved to the urban California coast, to San Diego,
that means one drop less of water flowing into the Salton
The Salton Sea is a maligned resource in many ways because
it’s been discarded. It was well used in the 1960s
as folks came out here, built marinas and developments around
the shoreline, used the Salton Sea to fish and to boat and
water ski. That heyday is now gone. If you go around the
Salton Sea today you see the remnants of the 1960s and the
early 1970s, those marinas and hotels are gone now and dilapidated.
We don’t have the visitation that we once did
for all sorts of factors. One of them is folks’ fear.
Larry Cox, Imperial Valley Farmer
Keeping the Salton Sea alive isn’t necessary for us
to keep farming and in some ways it’s almost detrimental
because if, if the Salton Sea is to be mandated to stay alive
and we have to be careful with the quality of our drain water
that goes off there. And from a farming standpoint we look
at it as an agricultural sump, to which it was designated.
If [Colorado River water] stop coming to the Salton Sea,
we’ll see a immediate decline in the fishery and an
immediate decline in the health of the Salton Sea and our
ability to sustain the environmental bounty that we currently
The drain water that comes off of our fields and the fields in Coachella flow
naturally into the Salton Sea and there's pretty close to a million acre feet
of water that runs into the Salton Sea every year. There’s no flow out
of it so anything that flows into there stays there.
The Salton Sea, while it’s California’s largest
lake it’s in this corner of California that people
don’t pay a lot of attention to. Unfortunately, those
folks that don’t pay a lot of attention to it today
may have to in the future as the sea recedes and we have
these environmental problems increasingly, that’s
going to directly affect their lives. And they may not
be concerned about the 400 species of birds here. They
may not be concerned about the prolific fishery, but when
the Salton Sea starts affecting human health in the Coachella
and Imperial Valleys, they better care.
Ted Schade, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District
One of the things that I’m concerned about with the Salton Sea is
that as the flows into the sea are reduced, the sea will get smaller. And
as the sea gets smaller, lakebed will be exposed. Estimates are somewhere
between 70 and 100 square miles of lakebed won’t be covered with
On most Thursday afternoons, thousands crowd the streets of Palm
Springs' weekly outdoor market. This is a place where children
do not suffer from the effects of industrial pollution or a contaminated
food chain. Yet within a few years, Palm Springs may be at the
center of a serious public health emergency.
Forty miles to the south and rising out of a harsh brown landscape
is a vast body of water called the Salton Sea. It seems almost
too good to be true — an inland lake in the middle of the
desert. This is California’s crown jewel of biodiversity — a
sanctuary for millions of migrating waterfowl.
Salton Sea, outside of Palm
But as recently as 100 years ago, there was no water here. It
was a huge dried out salt basin — the remains of ancient
lakes that over time, evaporated into the desert air. But in 1905,
everything changed. Violent winter storms caused the Colorado River
to go on a rampage. In the Spring, the swollen river suddenly jumped
its banks. The entire flow of the Colorado surged into the Salton
Basin. Farmland and homes were washed away. For 18 months, engineers
waged a fierce battle. When the river returned to its original
course. What was left behind was the Salton Sea.
Five hundred thousand acres of rich farmland
carpet the neighboring Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Once a desert wasteland,
today these farms provide nearly eighty-five percent of the nation's winter
Today, this is the largest inland body of water in California.
For four months temperatures soar above 100 degrees. Over six feet
of water is lost to evaporation every year. But unlike the lakes
of ancients times, it hasn't dried up.
Five hundred thousand acres of rich farmland carpet the neighboring
Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Once a desert wasteland, today
these farms provide nearly eighty-five percent of the nation's
winter vegetable crop. What makes this billion-dollar industry
possible is Colorado River water — enough water to satisfy
the yearly needs of a city of 24 million. But intensive irrigation
also produces massive amounts of run-off.
The Salton Sea is landlocked and surrounded by mountains and desert
To the north and south are irrigated agricultural development.
These farms are the source of drain water that keeps the sea from
drying up. But it's a resource that presents a major paradox.
What feeds the Salton Sea is slowly killing it. The agricultural
drain water contains enormous amounts of salt and chemicals. Over
the years, it has become twenty-five percent saltier than the ocean.
Several decades ago, the sea's ecosystem began to suffer.
Trees in water, near the end
of the Salton Sea.
In the 1980s, outbreaks of botulism and algae blooms killed millions
of fish. And then, the birds began to die. Today, the shoreline
often serves as a graveyard for thousands of waterfowl. In one
three month period 150,000 eared grebes died. Though the exact
cause remains unknown — most scientists believe the dead
birds fed on tainted fish.
What is known is that the die-offs changed the public's perception
of the sea. Today, the biggest fear is that if the sea gets saltier — it
won't be able to support any life. Though recent tests indicate
that the salinity of the Sea is still low enough for fish to reproduce,
there exists another serious threat. It's all about who owns the
rights to Colorado River water.
Released on demand from the Hoover Dam, the water that sustains
the Salton Basin travels fourteen hundred miles. Just before the
river crosses into Mexico, much of its volume is diverted into
a series of canals — eventually bringing life to the farms
of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Today, these farms consume
half of California's share of Colorado River water — more
than Los Angeles and San Diego combined. This has long been the
focus of legal battles with the water-starved communities of Southern
In an historic agreement, farmers have agreed to sell to San Diego
county enough water to satisfy the needs of 2 million people each
year. But this has also trapped the Salton Sea between the needs
of its fragile ecosystem, and the conflicting interests of farmers
Wind Farm, near Palm Springs,
Not very far from the Salton Sea is a vast network of generators
that harness the power of the wind. Providing enough electricity
for the entire Coachella Valley — they also serve as a reminder
that high winds are a natural part of the local environment.
As the Salton Sea begins to recede — toxic dust storms will
inevitably come off the dried-out lakebed. Despite this danger,
the transfer of water to San Diego has gone forward without an
agreed upon plan or even adequate funds to remedy the situation.
Without proper management in the future, this gift of nature will
vanish again into the desert sands.