Future of the Salton Sea is tied to fate of imperiled Colorado River

NPR Published February 22, 2023 at 1:20 PM EST
Bombay Beach, once a hot-spot for tourists in the middle of the last century, has become a haven for artists. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

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.


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