The Sorry State of the Salton Sea

As more water flows to the coast, California’s largest inland water body teeters on the brink

By Sam Harnett

Gundi Vigfusson

The Salton Sea, northeast of San Diego, is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Millions of birds stop there every year.

Last month the California Supreme Court upheld a water transfer deal that sends billions of gallons of water a year from Imperial County farms to cities in San Diego County. The 2003 deal is the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the history of the United States, and it will have major environmental and economic impacts on the region. One of the areas most dramatically affected will be California’s largest — and in many ways its most notorious — inland body of water: the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has a fraught history. It used to be part of the Colorado River Delta, but with the diversion of water the area has become desert. In 1905, a massive flood caused the formation of the current Sea, and during the following decades it became an iconic resort location, drawing fishermen and pleasure seekers from across the country. In the 1970s, the Sea fell from favor. Rising salinity killed all the sport fish, celebrities stopped coming, and the resort developments were abandoned. Today, the only water the Sea receives is agricultural run-off from nearby farms, and without that water, the Sea will disappear in a matter of years.

There are two major concerns if the Salton Sea dries up. The first is a public health issue. The Sea currently covers 376 square miles of toxic seabed. Over the last 100 years, the sand has absorbed all the pollutants from the agricultural run-off of nearby farms. Because of the high salt content, the toxic dust can become airborne with a breeze of just five-to-ten miles per hour. The Sea reaches a maximum depth of 50 feet, so a foot of elevation loss translates to miles of exposed seabed. Imperial County already has violent dust storms and health officials worry that the increased exposure of salt dust will further deteriorate air quality.

The second concern is ecological. While tourists no longer flock there, the Sea is still a popular stop for birds — one of the few remaining waterways in Southern California for migratory birds on the Central, Atlantic and Pacific flyways. The others have dried up as water has been diverted for agricultural and urban uses. The Audubon Society says that more than 400 different species, adding up to millions of birds, stop over at the Salton Sea each year. Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, says without the sea there will be massive bird die-offs and possibly extinctions.

The water transfers have shortened the timeline for the Sea’s decline. As part of a 2003 deal, the Sea will receive “mitigation water” until 2018, to offset diversions to San Diego County. Even with this water, the Sea is losing almost a foot of depth a year. Once that water stops flowing, the Sea will change dramatically. Cohen describes it as “falling off a cliff.” His dire predictions for the Sea’s future appear in a 2006 report he drew up for the Pacific Institute.

While the mitigation water still flows, the state was supposed to come up with a plan to prevent the ecological and public health disasters. They drafted a full restoration plan in 2003 with a price tag of about nine billion dollars. When the recession hit, the plan was shelved entirely. Before the mitigation water runs out, local groups are fighting to establish smaller projects that will mitigate the impending calamity.

In the south, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) wants to set up 750 acres of wetlands around Red Hill Marina. The shore has receded markedly over the last decade, and the toxic white seabed now surrounds the entire hill. To pay for the project, the district wants to end the mitigation water four years ahead of schedule. Currently, the district compensates farmers who have had to fallow their fields because the mitigation water has been sent to the Sea instead of their crops. If they don’t have to pay the farmers, the district thinks it can raise $60-70 million for restoration projects.

Local environmental groups in the north have a completely different agenda. Debi Livesay works for the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, who own miles of coast around the north of the Sea. She has managed to set up 65 acres of wetlands and bird habitat with only limited help from the state. The Torres Martinez Tribe has plans to expand the project, but Livesay says they won’t be able to move forward without the time buffer afforded by the mitigation water.

Livesay says that ending the mitigation water early would be a devastating blow to her projects and one more chapter in the Salton Sea’s tumultuous restoration story. Livesay claims that the Torrez Martinez Native Americans were left completely out of the loop on the original water transfer deal. Afterward, she says the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) used a technical loophole to prevent the tribe from getting state restoration funds. Officials want the tribe to complete a state environmental report, but because the tribe is a sovereign entity it can only complete a federal environmental report, which DFG won’t accept. Livesay says this kind of frustrating roadblock has been the norm in the fight to keep the Sea from itself sliding toward environmental disaster. I was unable to reach anyone at the Department of Fish and Game who could comment on Livesay’s statements in time for this story.

The Torres Martinez Tribe and IID disagree on the water mitigation schedule, but they agree on one thing: the only way to save the Sea is for the state or federal government to enact a large-scale restoration program. In the meantime, the Sea continues to shrink.

Listen to my radio story about the Salton Sea Monday morning on The California Report.

  • Michael Lehner

    San Diego should look for alternative sources. Desalination is expensive but smaller and more numerous desalination plants could be operational pretty quickly. The Colorado River is already headed for trouble. Before too many years, San Diego might have a nice big empty pipe to an empty river bed.