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Palm Springs, California, USA
  Salton Sea

PROFILE:

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.”


Tom Kirk

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 flyway.

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, particularly agriculture.

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 Sea.

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

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 sustain.

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.


Tom Kirk:


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

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 water anymore.

 

 

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 Springs, California.

Salton Sea, outside of Palm Springs, California.

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 vegetable crop.

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

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 California.

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 and developers.

Wind Farm, near Palm Springs, California

Wind Farm, near Palm Springs, California.

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.


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