A lifeline for the Salton Sea

Local, state officials welcome federal funds for environmental projects

By Ian James

A DRY PORTION of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Photographs by Marcio Jose Sanchez Associated Press

The Biden administration has announced a plan to provide $250 million to accelerate environmental projects around the shrinking Salton Sea, a major commitment intended to help revitalize the lake’s ecosystems and control hazardous dust in a deal that clears the way for California to take less water from the drought-ravaged Colorado River.

Leaders of the Imperial Irrigation District, which uses the single largest share of the Colorado River to supply farms in the Imperial Valley, had called for federal money to support the state’s Salton Sea program as a key condition for participating in water cutbacks. Some of the district’s leaders praised the funding commitment from the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation, calling it a historic step toward addressing the windblown dust and deteriorating habitats that have plagued California’s largest lake.

“This checks the box big time,” said J.B. Hamby, an Imperial Irrigation District board member. “It’s a really big deal, and nothing like this has really ever happened before.”

This year, federal officials demanded large-scale water cutbacks throughout the Southwest to try to prevent the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to dangerously low levels. Four major California water districts have proposed reducing water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year for the next four years, about 9% of the state’s total water allotment.




California officials must stop squabbling and face the Salton Sea crisis with clear plans

Chuck Parker – Special to The Desert Sun

Forty million people living in Southern California are faced with a deadly combination of drought, warming temperatures, a drying Salton Sea and criminally negligent policies. Officials who have the power and the responsibility to protect our water supply refuse to admit that the Colorado River can no longer supply the amount of water that we have become accustomed to. They have chosen to retreat into their corners and squabble about who should make the necessary sacrifices to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell from reaching dead pool where no one will get any water from the river.

California officials, including Imperial Irrigation District (IID) are withholding their cooperation to save the Colorado River, by saying that cutbacks will hurt their efforts to control the dust that comes from the Salton Sea’s dry lakebed. They are demanding federal funding for these efforts as a condition for agreeing to cutbacks in water use. This is an attempt at blackmail based on a lie. The only plans that the Salton Sea Management Plan has to control dust are by furrowing the bone-dry lakebed and spreading hay bales. These plans will not work and are a token effort at best. It is the sale of water by IID to urban areas, beginning in 2003, which has caused the Salton Sea to dry up and created the dust storms that are making people sick.

Salton Sea
If you don’t believe me, just research dry Lake Owens. Stripped of all of its water by Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District 100 years ago, Lake Owens suffered from the worst air pollution in the country, decades of lawsuits and billions of dollars spent on dust control projects which left the lakebed looking like a vast parking lot. The Salton Sea is three times the size of Lake Owens and closer to large population centers. If we allow the Salton Sea Management Plan to follow the Lake Owens model, it will cost $9 billion plus maintenance, and create a huge public health disaster.
Officials, like our Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who claim they are worried about the people who are getting sick, need to get behind the only plan that can completely eliminate the threat of toxic dust storms – importing ocean water. In this way, we can decouple the Salton Sea from the Colorado River and contribute to solving the water crisis that nature is presenting us. Once the sea is refilled, we could begin to desalinate the seawater to create a new supply of fresh water to relieve the drought. California and Arizona and the other Basin states and Mexico have to work together to protect our water supply.

Feds demand Colorado River water cutbacks



Federal officials are warning California and other states that use Colorado River water to sharply reduce diversions or the government will act unilaterally. California would take the biggest hit.


Feds demand Colorado River water cutbacks

One must wade through a thicket of bureaucratic jargon to find it, but on Friday federal officials issued what appears to be a serious warning to California and other states that use water from the highly stressed Colorado River:

If they cannot agree on sharp reductions in diversions of the Colorado’s water, the feds will impose them unilaterally.

It’s the latest wrinkle in decades of interstate squabbling over the river, which has become more heated as the river’s flows continue to decline and conditions in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, reach the crisis stage.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation wants California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce diversions by at least 2 million acre-feet a year and as much as 4 million, but negotiations have been fruitless. California, which takes the most water from the river, by far, has offered just a 400,000 acre-foot reduction. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.

With talks stalemated, the bureau said it will begin planning for unilateral action “to address the serious operational realities facing the system…” due to “the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the (Colorado River) basin.” It would implement cuts by reducing releases from the two reservoirs.

“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River system and all those who depend on it,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

The Bureau of Reclamation is telling the states “that this is kind of their last opportunity for consensus-building, for voluntary action,” Jaime Garcia, a water fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, told the Los Angeles Times.

“The fundamental issue is, whatever solution people come up with is going to hurt,” Garcia said. “The river is overallocated. It’s drying up. And we have to find a way to sort of spread out the pain evenly.”

Because California is the largest user of Colorado River water, cutbacks — either voluntary or imposed — would have their greatest impact on the state. However, while the Colorado is a major source of water for Southern California’s more than 20 million residents, the region has other sources for municipal users.

Rather, about two-thirds of the Colorado’s water diverted into California goes to farming, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County. The district takes more water from the river, at least 2.5 million acre-feet a year, than Nevada and Arizona combined. Therefore, if there are major cutbacks, as the feds demand, the Imperial Irrigation District would have to give up the most.

Imperial gets the most because it was the first entity to tap the Colorado more than a century ago, thus establishing its senior water rights. The Imperial Dam and All-American Canal allow the Imperial Valley to have a 12-month growing season, making it a major producer of winter produce as well as a source of alfalfa to feed cattle and milk cows.

The Interior Department has $4 billion from the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act to compensate those who would lose water by flow reductions. But the money and the latest warning may not produce agreement among the affected states.

If the Bureau of Reclamation acts unilaterally to reduce diversions, it will likely result in high-stakes litigation that tests Imperial district’s water rights. In a sense what’s happening along the Colorado could be a forerunner of legal showdowns over water rights in other regions of the state, if drought conditions continue.


Feds to Colorado River states: reduce water usage, or we will do it for you

The Interior Department outlined a path for unilateral cuts last week, upping the pressure on western states. source: Grist.org


In theory, the federal government can unilaterally cut water deliveries from the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which release more than 2 trillion gallons of water to farms and cities across the Southwest each year. In reality, this has never happened: Previous cuts have always been negotiated between the federal government and the seven states that use the river.

David McNew / Getty Images

Late last week, however, the federal government sent its strongest signal yet that it is willing to single-handedly impose water cuts on the Colorado for the first time in history, as the U.S. West stares down the consequences of a climate-change-fueled megadrought that has parched the river.

The Department of the Interior, the federal agency that manages water in the Colorado River basinannounced on Friday that it would look into changing the rules for how it operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are located in southern Utah and southern Nevada, respectively. This would pave the way for the department to impose sharp cuts on major water users in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico, which receives water pursuant to a 1944 treaty.


In effect, the letter is a formal warning to the river states, telling them that if they fail to make the major cuts necessary to prevent the reservoirs from bottoming out, the feds won’t hesitate to unilaterally cut their water deliveries to do so.

The Interior Department said in its Friday letter that it would conduct an environmental review before changing the rules to impose new cuts on the states. This will give states one more chance to come up with their own voluntary reductions before the government enacts its own. According to John Fleck, a professor of water policy at the University of New Mexico, the upshot of all this is that unprecedented water reductions are all but guaranteed next year.

“Whether those cuts are imposed by a government action, or voluntary action by the states, or the fact that the reservoirs are fucking empty, they will happen,” he told Grist.

The new review comes after months of tense negotiations between the federal government and the seven basin states: California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. Earlier this year, as water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead fell to historic lows, officials at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation ordered states to reduce their water consumption. The Bureau wanted a total reduction of between 2 and 4 million acre-feet — roughly a third of all water usage on the river.

Full Article


Can the Salton Sea be saved?

By Zoya Teirstein, Grist 


Climate change, megadrought and agricultural needs have transformed the ‘jewel in the Californian desert’ into a toxic place.

This story was originally published at Grist and is republished here by permission.

In the spring of 1905, the Colorado River, bursting with seasonal rain, topped an irrigation canal and flooded the site of a dried lake bed in Southern California. The flooding, which continued for two years before engineers sealed up the busted channel, created an unexpected gem in the middle of the arid California landscape: the Salton Sea. In the decades that followed, vacationers, water skiers, and speed boat enthusiasts flocked to the body of water. The Beach Boys and the Marx Brothers docked their boats at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, which opened in 1959. At the time, it seemed like the Salton Sea, and the vibrant communities that had sprung up around it, would be there for centuries to come.

But the sea’s heyday was short-lived. Cut off from the life source that created it — the Colorado River — and sustained mainly by limited agricultural runoff from nearby farms, the landlocked waterbody began to evaporate. The water that remained became increasingly salty and toxic. Tourism dried up. The scent of rotten eggs, from high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the sea, filled the air. Fish died in droves from lack of oxygen, their bones washing up on the beach like sand.

Oxygen-starved tilapia float in a shallow Salton Sea bay near Niland, California AP Photo / Gregory Bull

By the 1980s, the rich, white vacationers had fled. Today, the community is made up of predominantly Latino agricultural workers who labor in nearby fields in Imperial County, among the poorest counties in California, and Indigenous tribes that have called the region home for millennia. They suffer from a unique cocktail of health threats that stem from the Salton Sea.

The waterbody is fed by about 50 agricultural channels, carrying limited amounts of water infused with pesticides, nitrogen, fertilizers, and other agricultural byproducts. As a result, the briny lake’s sediment is laced with toxins like lead, chromium, and DDT. Climate change and the prolonged megadrought gripping the Western United States are only compounding these problems. The Salton Sea is projected to lose three quarters of its volume by the end of this decade; declining water levels could expose an additional 100,000 acres of lake bottom. The sea’s surface has already shrunk roughly 38 square miles since 2003.

As the sea dries and more shoreline is exposed, the strong winds that plague this part of California kick up chemical-laced dust and blow it into nearby communities, where roughly 650,000 people live. Residents complain of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, and other health problems.

“It’s a huge environmental justice issue,” Jenny Binstock, a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, told Grist. “It leads to increased asthma attacks, bronchitis, lung disease.” Hospitalization rates for children with asthma in facilities near the sea are nearly double the state average.

Beyond dust, Ryan Sinclair, an environmental microbiologist at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California, is concerned about bioaerosols — tiny airborne particles that come from plants and animals — that can develop from algae or bacteria in the sea’s shallow, tepid waters.





Colorado River Board of California

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton

Dear Deputy Secretary Beaudreau, Assistant Secretary Trujillo, and Commissioner Touton: Thank you for your leadership and collaboration as we work together to stabilize the Colorado River Basin amidst an unprecedented, climate change-driven drought stretching over two decades.

Given dire drought conditions across the region and dangerously low reservoir levels, we firmly believe that all water users within the Basin must take immediate voluntary actions to stabilize water supplies in the Basin’s major reservoirs.

California water agencies that utilize Colorado River water supplies propose to conserve up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year, beginning in 2023 and running through 2026. This water, which would otherwise be used by California’s communities and farms, will meaningfully contribute to stabilizing the Colorado River reservoir system.

We have identified a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities that would yield approximately 400,000 acre-feet of System Conservation water supplies that could be retained in Lake Mead each year through 2026.

California’s Colorado River water agencies are also prepared to create and store additional quantities of Intentionally Created Surplus water supplies in Lake Mead pursuant to the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines, under future favorable hydrologic and water supply conditions. In order to enable this water conservation, our agencies will need to utilize funding opportunities provided by the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal programs.

Each of the California agencies involved in developing this package of proposed conserved water supplies will also require your support in developing agreements for funding, potential intra- and inter- state coordination, water use accounting, and in obtaining necessary board and agency approvals over the coming weeks and months.

The State of California and its Colorado River agencies appreciate the collaboration of the Department of the Interior and Reclamation to stabilize the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking due to California’s existing water conservation actions and will further shrink when additional conservation actions are taken.

Voluntary water conservation actions outlined in this letter depends on a clear federal commitment to contribute meaningfully to stabilization efforts at the Salton Sea. California has long been a leader in water conservation within the Colorado River Basin, including through the nation’s largest agricultural to urban water conservation and transfer program, the Quantification Settlement Agreement, and through billions of dollars in investments in agricultural and urban water conservation.

In fact, through a variety of activities, California’s water agencies have voluntarily conserved nearly 2.0 million acre-feet of water supplies in Lake Mead since 2007 that has added more than twenty feet to Lake Mead elevations and aided other Lower Basin water users from experiencing previously agreed upon shortage reductions that would have otherwise occurred as early as 2015. Most recently, our water agencies have been committed to constructive participation in discussions among the basin states that began even before to the Commissioner’s call in June for urgent voluntary water conservation. While a broad multi-state agreement to conserve water across the Basin has not been reached, the California agencies propose to take voluntary action now to conserve water in coming months.

It is California’s intention that this proactive voluntary action builds on existing agreements, contracts, compacts, and water rights to catalyze broader basin-wide conservation and helps to avoid protracted litigation that might otherwise result from regulatory or mandated actions. California and its Colorado River agencies believe that it is imperative for the Department of the Interior and Reclamation to immediately reengage the seven Basin States, Tribes, and Mexico in efforts to identify additional water conservation and water use reduction activities to stabilize the Colorado River reservoir system. Additionally, California and the agencies look forward to working with you and others across the Basin with respect to the administrative actions identified in Reclamation’s August 16, 2022, News Release.


CC: California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth Colorado River Basin States Principals




Why the Salton Sea is turning into toxic dust

The Salton Sea, California’s most polluted inland lake, has lost a third of its water in the last 25 years. New research has determined a decline in Colorado River flow is the reason for that shrinking.

As the lake dries up, the concentration of salt and chemicals in the remaining water has increased dramatically, causing a mass die-off of fish and birds, including endangered species. The dry lakebed, coated in the salty, toxic water, becomes dust that causes respiratory problems for nearby residents.

“It is an environmental catastrophe,” said Juan S. Acero Triana, UCR hydrologist and lead author of a new study focused on understanding water movement on and below Earth’s surface near the Salton Sea, a research field called hydrology. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, or INFEWS, program.

A view of the drying, shrinking Salton Sea and the playa left behind. (Stan Lim/UCR)

There have been a variety of hypotheses about why the water levels are steadily declining. Some blame climate change and heat for drying up the lake. Others suspect that agriculture could be to blame. As irrigation systems get more efficient and crops are modified to use less water, it means less water getting into the Salton Sea. However, the researchers say these are not the biggest causes of the sea’s decline.

“There is less water coming from the Colorado River into the Sea, and that is driving the problem,” said Hoori Ajami, UCR hydrologist, study co-author and principal investigator. This finding, and the methods used to obtain it, are now published in the journal Water Resources Research.

The researchers considered all major processes impacting the water balance of an endorheic lake like the Salton Sea, where water flows in but not out to any tributaries. Endorheic lakes worldwide have been shrinking in recent decades at what the researchers call an “alarming” rate due to the combined effects of global warming and diversion of water for agricultural and industrial purposes.

A view of the drying, shrinking Salton Sea and the playa left behind. (Stan Lim/UCR)

To understand the reasons for the Salton Sea’s decline, the researchers used a hydrologic model that accounted for all processes in the surrounding areas that impact the lake’s water balance, including climate, soil types, land slope, and plant growth.


Geographically the model included data not only about the Sea itself, but also from the surrounding watershed, streams entering the lake, and the land area that drains into those streams.

Data for the model was hard to come by as this is a transboundary basin on the US-Mexico border between California and Baja California Norte, and stakeholders may have been reluctant to share data that could alter previously earned water rights. However, using publicly available data and data mining techniques, UCR researchers were able to simulate long-term water balance dynamics and identify reduced Colorado River flows as the main cause of the Salton Sea shrinking.

“It’s not entirely clear, however, whether the decline in Colorado River water is more due to global warming drying out the river, or reductions in allocation levels to California, or both,” Acero Triana said.

Despite that lingering ambiguity, the researchers say the study should send a message to water management agencies and lawmakers that the Salton Sea watershed should be considered part of the Colorado River basin.

“Usually, the Sea is considered an independent system, and a watershed-centric approach considering surface and groundwater resources is needed to find a solution,” Ajami said. “As the environmental risks of a shrinking Sea mount, all parties must work together to mitigate the danger.”




The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam


As breathtaking today as when it was completed, Hoover Dam ranks among America’s most awe-inspiring, if dubious, achievements.

This epic story of the dam—from conception to design to construction—by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik exposes the tremendous hardships and accomplishments of the men on the ground—and in the air—who built the dam and the demonic drive of Frank Crowe, the boss who pushed them beyond endurance.

It is a tale of the tremendous will exerted from start to finish, detailing the canny backroom dealings by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the herculean engineering challenges Crowe faced, and the terrific union strikes by the men who daily fought to beat back the Colorado River.

Colossus tells an important part of the story of America’s struggle to pull itself out of the Great Depression by harnessing the power of its population and its natural resources.

Lithium Valley? With push to EVs, all eyes are on the Salton Sea

Southern California could be the Middle East of this century. Companies are scrambling to get at the mineral stew bubbling beneath the Sonoran Desert.

By  | bstaggs@scng.com | Orange County Register – dailybulletin.com


Salton Sea Lithium Valley

Those drawn to the other-wordly landscape surrounding the Salton Sea, some 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs, have long been lured by potential.

Potential to plant crops that help feed the country or solar panels to help power it in the wide open, affordable land in Imperial County. Potential to pursue bohemian, artistic lives in Bombay Beach or nearby Slab City. Potential to spot migratory birds who make their temporary home at this largest lake in California.

That potential hasn’t always panned out. With both local and imported water scarce, farmers sometimes are paid to keep their fields fallow. The solar industry hasn’t delivered the once-promised jobs or a huge spike in land values. And there are regular reports of massive bird and fish die-offs, with the sand of some lakeside beaches made from the bones of fish that couldn’t survive the shallow, salty lake’s oxygen-deprived waters.

But now, everyone from General Motors to the U.S. Department of Energy to Warren Buffet seems to believe the Salton Sea’s greatest potential so far remains untapped: its potential to become known the world over as Lithium Valley.

Demand for lithium has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, since the world’s lightest metal also happens to be fantastic at storing energy. Lithium’s ability to quickly charge, recharge and transfer lots of energy has made it the primary component in batteries for everything from laptops to pacemakers to cell phones. Now, lithium is the material of choice for batteries to store solar and wind energy — and to power electric vehicles.

Tens of millions of EV batteries soon will be needed each year. In August, California announced a plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035, and more than a dozen states are expected to follow suit. And federal lawmakers have passed several funding packages that also push consumers and car manufacturers toward EVs, with countries around the world pursuing similar goals.

Unfortunately, lithium isn’t particularly abundant or easy to get at. So the growing demand has triggered a geopolitical scramble — sometimes called a “white gold rush,” in reference to lithium’s silvery-white color — to find new, cost effective ways to source the material.

Lithium Valley.

That’s where the Salton Sea Geothermal Field comes in.

Researchers believe there may be enough lithium bubbling a mile or more beneath the desert adjacent to the sea to meet domestic needs for the foreseeable future. They believe there might even be enough lithium left over that the U.S. could export the prized material to other countries.

Some locals remain understandably skeptical. But experts working on these plans insist the type of lithium extraction operations they’re eyeing, which aren’t yet happening anywhere in the world, present few environmental problems while offering significant economic potential for the region.

Salton Sea water managers await toxic algae bloom test results as drought intensifies problem

SOURCE: News Channel 3 – kesq

As of today, it’s not clear if there’s a cause for concern over any toxic algae blooms at the Salton Sea.

The California State Water Resources Control Board has yet to release test results from samples submitted by Imperial County Environmental Health officials this week.

The state works with Riverside and Imperial counties to manage the Salton Sea, as the waterway spans across both counties.

Toxic Water

As of June 30 2022, there were “no new observations made of the bloom for 30 days”, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The alert noted “observations of scum and surface accumulation of algal material present at this site indicating elevated health risk to humans and animals. Surface accumulations may become stranded along shoreline, children and dogs should avoid contact.”

It also noted “the exact location, extent and toxicity of the reported bloom may not be accurate and may not be affecting the entire waterbody,” therefore its recommended the waterbody manager be contacted for current conditions since “the bloom may still be present or may have subsided.”

County environmental officials partner with the state to help advise the public in the surrounding community if a toxic algae bloom is detected.

Salton Sea

“The last time we posted signage was in mid-July, so the detection would’ve been the week prior,” said Vanessa Ramirez, Environmental Health Compliance Specialist for Imperial County.

However, unless testing is conducted, county officials don’t always know whether or not toxic algae is present at the Salton Sea. If a potential harmful algal bloom is observed and reported, then county officials will visit the site and conduct an investigation to make a determination.

Currently, the state water managers conduct what’s called holiday testing. “The state water board has a program for Memorial Day, July 4, and for Labor Day. Since we’re local, we’ll go out there on their behalf, do the sampling, and send the sample to the state” for testing, said Vanessa Ramirez, Environmental Health Compliance Specialist for Imperial County.

Depending on the level of danger determined, action is then taken to address the bloom. Those steps can range from putting up signs warning the public to closing waterways for recreational use.

Toxic algae blooms used to be more seasonal, but that’s no longer the case due to a variety of reasons, including warmer temperatures and California’s ongoing drought.

When water recedes, its allows for “an increase in nutrient activity in a particular area,” according to Jeff Lamoure, Deputy Director of Environmental Health for Imperial County.

“You see maybe a concentration of the Cyanotoxins in the water that causes them to bloom more frequently. You’re not having as much water movement because of the receding shorelines, so they’re kind of working together to causes these activities to increase,” added Lamoure.

Existing warnings for people to stay out of the water due to dangerous algae blooms in Lake Elsinore, in western Riverside County, and Big Bear Lake, in San Bernardino County, are prompting growing interest on the current status of algae blooms at the Salton Sea.

The lake, located in southern Riverside and northern Imperial counties, has had a history of toxic algae blooms in previous years.

Exposure to toxic algae blooms can cause severe illness among people and animals, and death among wildlife in some instances.