The vast California lake relies on runoff from cropland to avoid disappearing. But as farmers face water cuts due to drought and an ever drier Colorado River, the Salton Sea stands to lose again.
BRAWLEY, Calif. — The drought crisis on the Colorado River looms large in California’s Imperial Valley, which produces much of the nation’s lettuce, broccoli and other crops, and now faces water cuts. But those cuts will also be bad news for the environmental and ecological disaster unfolding just to the north, at the shallow, shimmering and long-suffering Salton Sea.
“There’s going to be collateral damage everywhere,” said Frank Ruiz, a program director with California Audubon.
To irrigate their fields, the valley’s farmers rely completely on Colorado River water, which arrives by an 80-mile-long canal. And the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake, relies on water draining from those fields to stay full.
But it’s been shrinking for decades, killing off fish species that attract migratory birds and exposing lake bed that generates dust that is harmful to human health. As the sea has receded, it’s also left abandoned houses, shuttered resorts and landlocked marinas that, in the mid-20th century, had transformed the area into a fishing and water-sports playground for Southern Californians.
Now, with cuts in water use coming after two decades of drought that have left the Colorado’s reservoirs at dangerously low levels, the sea will shrink even faster. “Less water coming to the farmers, less water coming into the Salton Sea,” Mr. Ruiz said. “That’s just the pure math.”
Earlier this month, the New River started flowing through the New River diversion structure at the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) project. This signifies an important milestone for the SCH project located at the southern end of the Salton Sea. In the coming months, water from the Sea will also be pumped into the diversion structure to be mixed with New River water and then make its way into the habitat ponds. The network of ponds and wetland aim to enhance environmental values while suppressing dust to reduce potential emissions coming from this area. Construction of the SCH project will continue through 2023 and is on schedule for completion by the end of this year. The 4,100-acre SCH is the first of many projects the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) team will implement as part of the SSMP Phase 1: 10-Year Plan. Click here to watch a recent video of the New River Diversion structure that was shared on CNRA’s social media accounts.
A shortage on the Colorado River has put tremendous pressure on the water supply that serves more than 40-million people in the Western United States.
But a punishing drought and the over allocation of the river have also created an urgent problem for California’s Salton Sea.
The 340-square-mile lake was formed in 1905 when a canal carrying river water to farmers in the Imperial Valley ruptured. The flood created a desert oasis that lured tourists and migratory birds to its shore. A century later, the Salton Sea — California’s largest lake — is spiraling into an ecological disaster.
The state of California has started projects to help stabilize the Salton Sea’s shoreline, including this one near Salton City. The hay bales are designed to interrupt the gusting wind and allow natural vegetation to take root. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)
Bombay Beach: A ‘Bohemian community’
At 223 feet below sea level, Bombay Beach occupies a low spot on the map.
Many of the shoreline community’s trailer homes are rusting into the earth and tagged with graffiti. Artists have created large pieces of public sculpture, including a vintage phone booth that stands on the shoreline as a tribute to a bygone era.
During the 1950s and 1960s Bombay Beach was swinging. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Desi Arnaz flocked to the area.
“People would come here for the boating, the fine dining, the golfing, you name it. For many years, this was the hottest place in Southern California. It was even called the California Riviera,” says Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s Salton Sea director.
The tourists and celebrities are gone. So are many of the community’s residents. About 230 people live in Bombay Beach now. On a recent windy day, foul-smelling yellow foam collected on the eroding shoreline.
A major drought on the Colorado River is imperling the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)
The Salton Sea’s decline is decades in the making
To understand why the Salton Sea is declining, it helps to look at where the water comes from. The lake is fed almost entirely by agricultural runoff — irrigation water from the Colorado River that drains off nearby farms.
The region is one of the most productive spots for winter produce in the United States. Lettuce, onions, alfalfa, dates and citrus grow prolifically in the mild climate.
In 2003, a deal with the local irrigation district sent a large share of its water to San Diego. That has left less water for local farms — and for the Salton Sea. A hotter and drier climate has also accelerated shortages on the river, which means the lake is shrinking fast.
In certain areas the shore has receded up to 100 feet, Ruiz said. “And with the Colorado River crisis, the Salton Sea is going to recede at a much faster pace,” he added, referring to the federal government’s warning that states must save an additional 2 to 4 million acre feet of water to stabilize the reservoirs and keep the river flowing downstream past Lake Mead.
“This is going to be a nightmare,” he said.
As the water level drops, the ecological disaster grows: The Salton Sea is getting saltier. The birds are leaving. The fish are suffocating.
But according to Ruiz, the real nightmare is what’s lurking in the dried up lake bed: copper, arsenic, selenium and DDT, a toxic insecticide left over from generations of farming.
“When those particles dry up, just think what they can do to the community,” Ruiz says.
When the wind blows, those chemicals get whipped up off the lakebed and become a hazard for the people who live nearby. It’s a problem the state of California is trying urgently to fix.
SACRAMENTO – Senator Steve Padilla (D-San Diego) today introduced Senate Bill 583, creating the Salton Sea Conservancy, unifying the state’s efforts to accomplish necessary and overdue preservation projects, protecting residents’ health, and fostering ecological recovery in the area.
With a surface area of 343 square miles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and was once a freshwater lake and a thriving tourism destination. Evaporation, exacerbated by climate change, along with agricultural runoff, has exposed toxins in the lakebed and created a perfect environment for dangerous algae blooms and bacteria to thrive. Some experts estimate the sea will lose more than half its volume by 2030, creating close to a 3-foot decline in the water level. As the sea shrinks, the lakebed containing elements such as arsenic and selenium becomes exposed, and the dust particles that then become airborne, spread the toxins throughout the region.
The exposure has had an overwhelming impact on the surrounding communities, predominantly composed of Latino agricultural workers. Hospitalization rates for children with asthma in the area are double the state average and residents have been especially affected by the rotten-egg odor from hydrogen sulfide overrunning the sea’s oxygen-deprived water. Imperial County, where the Sea is located, now suffers from some of the worst air quality in the country.
There have been numerous efforts by environmental justice groups to mitigate the negative health effects affecting communities. Similarly, environmental groups have sought aid from state and federal sources to preserve the environment correct the toxic health inequities present. Previous attempts to restore the Salton Sea have stalled despite numerous legislative efforts.
SB 583 would create the Salton Sea Conservancy within the Natural Resources Agency, which would then manage all of the conservation projects taking place in the Salton Sea Region. Conservancies have the ability to foster trust with region they serve. Creating the Salton Sea Conservancy would provide the surrounding community a direct link to a central entity, giving them further insight into restoration efforts.
“This is an environmental crisis that not only impacts the ecology of the region, but the people as well. Communities near the Salton Sea are at breaking point,” saidSenator Padilla. “By unifying all of the conservation projects surrounding the Sea, we can streamline .efforts and bring about necessary change faster.”
“We are excited to have a new partner in Senator Padilla, reinforcing our Salton Sea restoration efforts,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, joint author on the legislation. “A Salton Sea Conservancy creates a necessary avenue to finance operation and maintenance of restoration projects and ensure a healthier, more sustainable future for our sea and surrounding communities.”
“The creation of a conservancy at the Salton Sea to oversee the acquisition and management of land, create infrastructure and act as a responsible steward of wildlife habitat areas is long overdue,” said Frank Ruiz, director of the Salton Sea Program for Audubon California, a member of the Salton Sea Partnership. “As many different entities come together to slow the Sea’s decline, coordination and communication are essential, and we thank Sen. Padilla for working to further that.”
Debate over Colorado River cutbacks centers on whether evaporation should be counted. Changing the formula would hit California hard. (Rick Bowmer Associated Press)Much of the Colorado River’s water is diverted from reservoirs and transported in canals to the farmlands and cities of the desert Southwest. But some of the water also ends up going elsewhere — vanishing into thin air.
Water lost to evaporation has become a central point of contention in the disagreement between California and six other states over how to divide reductions in water use.
A proposal submitted by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming calls for relying heavily on counting evaporation and other water losses from reservoirs and along the river in the Lower Basin — the portion of the watershed that begins near the Grand Canyon and stretches to northern Mexico.
Counting those losses would mean immediate reductions of more than 1.5 million acre-feet across the region. It would also translate into especially large water cutbacks for California, which uses the single largest share of the river.
Under the proposal by the six states, Southern California water agencies would be required to absorb the largest share of the cuts, including a potential reduction of more than 18% for the evaporation losses alone, which could rise to 32%if reservoirs hit critically low levels.
The proposal also calls for major reductions in Arizona and Nevada. But the portions of those cuts based on accounting for evaporation would be smaller: about 13% for Arizona and 6% for southern Nevada.
California’s water managers argue that suddenly including evaporation in the math would amount to a drastic rewriting of the rules that would flout the water rights system. They have proposed a different approach that calls for more gradual reductions and wouldn’t involve evaporation losses.
“California’s focus has been, what can we do in the interim that’s pragmatic, practical, doable, that’s not going to make big, lasting changes,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. He said changes that would compromise existing water rights would be “a bridge too far in the near term.”
The Colorado River supplies water to farming areas, cities and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to northern Mexico. Chronic overuse combined with 23 years of severe drought and the effects of climate change have pushed the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to their lowest levels since they were filled.
Sure, the river begins in the Colorado Rockies. But in law and practice, the waterway making headlines is clearly the California River. And the first provision of any deal to save the river should rename it accordingly.
This condition wouldn’t be about Golden State pride. Instead, a name change would more accurately reflect the imperial role California plays in the movement of water, people, and power in the American West.
Right now, the Grand Canyon-sized divide over how to reduce the amount of water drawn from the rapidly diminishing river is being portrayed as a dispute between states. On one side, six states that rely on California-nee-Colorado water — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — have come together to demand cuts in water use that would fall heaviest on California.
In response, California water officials have produced a plan emphasizing how our state’s rights to the water are more senior than those of our Southwest neighbors. Their newly released plan would cut less from California’s take, and more from Arizona and Nevada. In the Wild West of Water, this argument — We stole it first! We stole it fair and square! — is a strong legal position.
But such descriptions of the fight fail to capture the true dynamics of the situation — that California is less a state than an empire, and the six states challenging it over water are California colonies. California is by far the richest and most dynamic area in this half of North America. California has more residents and a bigger economy than all the other western states of the U.S. put together.
In recent generations, California, like other great empires through history, has grown so much that it has exported people, money, and culture to nearby territories. California’s investment has helped make the intermountain West the nation’s fastest-growing region
Many of the greater West residents are native Californians, or immigrants who came through the Golden State. Nevada is the most Californian state; with nearly as many California natives (20%) as Nevada natives (25%), and more than 90% of its population living within 50 miles of the California border. But Californians have also provided sizable percentages of new residents to Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, where one out of every 10 residents was born here.
Are these transplanted Californians, and other residents of the California colonies, grateful for our largesse? Of course not. Colonists don’t freely thank their emperors, which is why every so often, the LA Times or New York Times interviews some real estate agent in Phoenix or Las Vegas or Denver, who whines about how the California ex-pats are driving up housing prices.
One proposal would bring cuts of 2 million acre-feet of water for users pulling from the drought-choked Colorado River system, mostly affecting California, Nevada and Arizona, in an attempt to conserve the region’s most valuable commodity: water.
When looking at the plan released Monday by six of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for their water supplies — and fiercely try to protect what they believe is their fair share — one water expert came to a harsh conclusion.
“It’s a bandage for a gunshot wound,” said Kyle Roerink, the executive director at the Great Basin Water Network.
The proposal, Roerink says, falls short because it puts the burden mostly on the three southwestern states — the so-called Lower Basin states.
“I think any time we see a proposal put forth that is going to limit consumptive uses, that’s helpful,” Roerink said. “It’s promising, but when you look at who’s giving up what, it just begs the question: Why does the Upper Basin get off scot-free?”
The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. Some of the largest cities in the country, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas, two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river that’s been severely stressed by drought, demand and overuse.
The 1,450-mile river also generates hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland.
States missed a mid-August deadline to heed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call to propose ways to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. They regrouped to reach consensus last week to fold into a larger proposal the Bureau of Reclamation has in the works.
After a key deadline passed this week without an agreement on how to address the Colorado River’s crisis, California is now sharply at odds with six other states over how to take less water from the shrinking river.
Now that California has rejected a plan offered by the rest of the region, the state has entered a political tug-of-war with high stakes. So why has the state that uses the most Colorado River water decided to go it alone?
California appears to be banking on its high-priority senior water rights, while the other states are presenting a united front to show the federal government they support a plan that would have California give up more water.
“The strongest thing that the other basin states have going for them is some relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has going for it is the law,” said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University.
“I think they’re playing to their strengths,” Larson said. “California is trying to play its best card, which is, ‘The law is on our side.’ And the other six states are trying to play their best card: ‘We are on each other’s side.’”
The parties are at an impasse as the federal government begins to weigh alternatives for rapidly reducing water use and preventing the river’s reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels.
Proposal Outlines Constructive Approach to Achieve Necessary Water Use Reductions through 2026 to Protect Critical Infrastructure, Prioritize Public Health and Safety
California water agencies that rely on the Colorado River today proposed a modeling framework for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate as it considers actions to help stabilize reservoir elevations and protect critical infrastructure to ensure the Colorado River system can continue to support 40 million people, nearly 6 million acres of agriculture, and Tribes across seven states and portions of Mexico.
The modeling framework outlines a constructive approach to achieve additional water use reductions while protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations (known collectively as the Law of the River). The approach builds on the California agencies’ commitments announced last fall to voluntarily conserve an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water each year through 2026 to protect storage in Lake Mead and help stabilize the Colorado River reservoir system.
California’s proposed framework seeks to protect Lake Mead elevation of 1,000 feet and Lake Powell elevation of 3,500 feet by modifying some parameters governing reservoir operations, maximizing the impact of existing plans and voluntary conservation actions, and increasing cutbacks if Lake Mead elevations decline. It also protects baseline water needs of communities across the West by prioritizing water supplies for human health and safety. The proposal was carefully developed to enable workable phased water use reductions and ensures protection of adequate water volumes in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
“The alternative provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize implementation delays. California’s alternative protects critical elevations and uses adaptive management to protect critical reservoir elevations through the interim period,”
JB Hamby, chair of Colorado River Board of California and California’s Colorado River Commissioner, wrote in a transmittal letter to Reclamation.
The approach differs from a modeling proposal submitted to Reclamation on January 30 by the six other basin states. The six-state proposal would direct the majority of water use reductions needed in the Lower Basin to California water users through a new apportionment method based on “system and evaporative losses.” The proposal directly conflicts with the existing Law of the River and the current water rights system and mandates cutback without providing tools to manage reductions.
For the past several months, California water users have sought a timely, practical and implementable solution with other Lower Basin users that can be implemented over the next three years to protect critical elevations in Lake Mead while longer-term changes are negotiated to update 2007 Interim Guidelines that will expire at the end of 2026. Suggestions to fundamentally change the Law of River are appropriately addressed through this shared process to update the guidelines.
California’s water agencies remain committed to working with all Colorado River basin states to take urgent, fair, and achievable action now to avoid unacceptable risks to communities, farms and economies in California and the rest of the basin.
For decades, California has been a leader in managing its Colorado River water resources and collaborating in basin-wide efforts to more effectively operate and manage the reservoir system and to incentivize water conservation as demands have increased in the face of shrinking supplies due to climate change.
The multi-state talks, which have been ongoing in fits and starts for months, were focused on achieving unprecedented water cuts to save the Colorado River – a system that provides water and electricity to more than 40 million people in the West.
As less and less water has been flowing through the river and its reservoirs, US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton last year called on the basin’s seven states – California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming – to figure out how to cut 2 to 4 million acre feet of usage, or as much as 30% of their river water allocation.
If they couldn’t agree on how to do it, Touton vowed the federal government would step in.
On Monday, six states – including lower basin states of Arizona and Nevada – released a letter and a proposed model for how much Colorado River water they could potentially cut to stave off a collapse and prevent the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, from hitting “dead pool,” when water levels will be too low to flow through the dams.
The maximum amount of basin-wide cuts the six states are proposing in their model is 3.1 million acre feet per year. It accounts for water conservation and evaporation and, if approved, could kick in if reservoir levels fall to catastrophically low conditions.
California – the largest user of Colorado River water – is conspicuously absent from the text and will release its own letter and model calling for more modest annual cuts of around 1 million acre feet later this week, JB Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board for the state and an Imperial Irrigation District board member, told CNN.