When an irrigation canal was breached in the early 1900s, the resulting flood created Southern California’s Salton Sea. It was a rare event that quickly created a beneficial presence in the Imperial Valley, as the lake provided recreation opportunities, tamped down dust, and became a stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway. But now, with inflows declining, this hundred-year-old sea is drying up, and that’s having a host of negative consequences for wildlife and air quality in the region. We spoke with Kurt Schwabe—professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center—about some of the biggest issues facing the sea, as well as potential solutions.
What are the big issues in the Salton Sea, and why has it taken so long to take action?
The first problem is that it’s a terminal lake whose inflows are primarily composed of agricultural drainage flows from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) (around 80%) and wastewater from Mexico (around 10%). This set-up leads to an increasingly polluted sea; as this chemical-laden water evaporates, it leaves behind salts and other pollutants such as metals, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The second problem is that the agricultural drainage flows that have contributed to maintaining the sea’s volume for most of the 20th century are considered to be the result of wasteful and unreasonable water use. This legal opinion opened up the doors for water transfers to southern California municipal water agencies from IID, including the large transfers under the Quantitative Settlement Agreement (QSA) of 2003, which helped California meet the federal government’s mandate to reduce its Colorado River allocations to its legally allocated annual amount of 4.4 million acre-feet.
The transfers of water from IID to cities is made possible by land fallowing and improvements in irrigation efficiency; both practices lessen runoff and, consequently, inflows to the sea. As the sea shrinks, winds pick up sediments from the increasingly exposed dry lake bed and spread them into surrounding communities, which are mostly low-income, making asthma and other respiratory diseases worse. The smaller lake is also more polluted and saline, which reduces habitat for fish and birds.
It’s been almost two decades since the state said it would take on liability to address these issues as part of the QSA deal. It’s been underperforming in its short-term responses and wrestling with what would constitute a long-term sustainable solution.
For various reasons, the Salton Sea is drying: rural-urban water transfers and sales, drought and manmade pollution. We have local water scarcity and poor-quality air. Due to urban population explosions, some of the Colorado River water that once went into the Salton Sea is now being sold to the Coachella Valley Water District, Los Angeles and San Diego. The Salton Sea is drying at a faster speed as temperatures rise and there is less water flowing into it. If we are to reverse the situation, this will demand decreasing water use and increasing the cost of water.
As the Salton Sea dries, air pollution rises as there is more dust, and it emits more stench in the form of hydrogen sulfide gas. Waste and chemicals coming from the Imperial Valley, together with Mexicali’s population explosion, are an overwhelming septic cargo for outdated infrastructure. Wastewater plants that have not been updated allow raw sewage and industrial chemicals to escape into the Alamo and New Rivers. These so-called rivers drain additional pollutants into the Salton Sea. Beneath the shrinking lake lie other pollutants: munitions from the World War II era, tons of pesticides, fertilizers and organic dead matter, which when exposed to the air release carbon dioxide and methane.
Owens Lake in Northern California became a disastrous dust bowl when the city of Los Angeles built a 200-mile aqueduct and completely drained the lake. This lifeless northern California site stretches for miles, with a patchwork of dust-control projects like furrowing, covering the lake bottom with gravel, plantings, and sprinkler systems costing $2.5 billion to install. There are millions more in maintenance costs every year.
Officials at the Salton Sea are following the Owens Lake path. Their ongoing practice of digging furrows and shallow ponds to control dust as more and more lakebed is exposed is questionable. Not only are these methods ineffective, they cause more greenhouse gas emissions! The Salton Sea is three times bigger than Owens Lake, so following that path could cost an estimated $7.5 billion.
Politicians and state officials who favor using the “incremental approach” with patronizing dry measures and shallow-water fixtures have succeeded in the serial killing of fish and other wildlife, and we are heading toward ever-more inhospitable conditions for humans. Importing ocean water would immediately address respiratory ailments, reverse the effects of drought and curb pollution. But the high cost is the main argument against water importation. In my view that expense is worth it. Yes, it will cost money to be a community that respects and takes care of our air, water, and soil.
Unlike Owens Lake, the Salton Sea has two oceans close by; there are 13 proposals to build an aqueduct to import water — either from the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific Ocean. Leaders of the Salton Sea Management Authority have considered these proposals too costly. However, a feasibility study is now being conducted by UC Santa Cruz to evaluate the effectiveness of these plans to import water. Their report will be turned over in September to the Salton Sea Management Program’s Long Range Planning Committee.
It is uncertain if water Importation will pass the feasibility test. If passed, how much longer will it take to start the engineering for an aqueduct?
The engineering of water importation should have started with the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement that legalized redirecting Colorado River water away from the Salton Sea. The QSA also called for restoring the largest lake in California, the Salton Sea. What are we waiting for?
The Salton Sea is a place of stunning contradictions. For decades, Californians have tried to figure out what to make of it. Often described as a “man-made” or “accidental,” the Salton Sea formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River overflowed from an irrigation project into a deep bowl in the desert floor in present-day Imperial County.
Settlers described this flooding as an unprecedented disaster, but soon found a purpose for the sea as a receptacle for runoff from Imperial Valley farms. During the 50s and 60s, the sea became a popular tourist attraction, but rising water from increased irrigation flooded its hotels and resorts, driving the tourists away. Rumors about the health effects of swimming and angling in the pesticide-contaminated water also influenced the decline of the resorts.
In 2003, the Imperial Valley transferred its Colorado River water rights to San Diego, and the Salton Sea, which had been sustained by runoff from the valley for most of the twentieth century, lost much of its inflow. As the sea started to shrink, it released pesticides and other toxins leading to massive fish and bird die-offs over the course of two decades.
My recent book explores how, at different times viewed as a disaster, a sump, and a health resort, the Salton Sea came to be commonly viewed as a wasteland. Policymakers struggled to raise funds—and popular support—for the sea’s conservation. The area around it, subsequently, has been used for the kinds of industrial projects reserved for places held in low regard: mines, prisons, and military bases.
The Salton Sea wasn’t just an accident, despite its reputation as the result of engineering mistakes made by early settlers. In fact, it is the most recent example of a natural cycle of Colorado River overflows that have filled this part of the desert for thousands of years. Floods from the Colorado River have been big and small—vast inundations that resulted in water bodies like Lake Cahuilla and relatively small overflow pools that evaporated within months.
IMPERIAL, Calif. (June 2, 2022) – Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement with California’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for violations of the Clean Water Act related to polluting of local wetlands. Under the settlement, Imperial Irrigation District will pay a $299,857 penalty and provide mitigation to offset the harm to the environment.
“This enforcement action reflects EPA’s continued commitment to ensuring public utilities like Imperial Irrigation District comply with federal laws and prevent pollution of wetlands,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman. “Actions like this are key to protecting our waterways and surrounding communities.”
On November 5, 2020, inspectors from EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspected IID’s construction of drain banks in the area and found that activities resulted in the discharge of sediment to approximately 1 acre of wetlands. This discharge also impacted approximately 20 acres of wetlands by severing the connection with Morton Bay, which drains to the Salton Sea.
In addition to paying the penalty, IID will develop a plan for the removal of the sediment in question and the restoration of the water connection to Morton Bay. If they are unable to restore the impacted site, IID would need to reestablish 63 acres of wetlands at an alternative location.
An overarching priority of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. A more specific federal goal is “No Net Loss” of wetlands by first avoiding, then minimizing, and finally compensating for any impacts to aquatic resources caused by the discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the United States.
Wetlands protect and improve water quality, provide fish and wildlife habitats, store floodwaters, and maintain surface water flow during dry periods. EPA works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to coordinate field research, damage assessments, and legal proceedings against entities who conduct unauthorized activities (e.g., dredging, filling, grading without a permit) in waters of the United States.
EPA has proposed a Consent Agreement and Final Order and is accepting public comment through July 5, 2022. View the public notice.
Today, the Salton Sea is an eerie place. Its mirror-like surface belies the toxic stew within. Fish skeletons line its shores and the ruins of a once thriving vacation playground is a reminder of better days. But long before agricultural runoff bespoiled the Salton Sea, the lakebed it now occupies was home to a much larger body of water known as Lake Cahuilla. The lake was six times the area of the Salton Sea and once covered much of Mexicali, Imperial and Coachella valleys.
“It was a freshwater lake that was about 100 meters deep in its deepest part,” said San Diego State University emeritus professor of geology Tom Rockwell. “It extended from up near Palm Springs southward into Mexico, so it was a very extensive lake.”
Lake Cahuilla has gone through many cycles of filling and drying out over thousands of years. A new study by Rockwell and his colleagues used radiocarbon dating to determine the timing of the last seven periods of filling. The research sheds light on both the history of human occupation in the area and its seismic past.
Wet and dry periods
Lake Cahuilla got its water from the Colorado River. Once a mighty waterway before it was siphoned off for agriculture and urbanization, the Colorado normally flowed south into the Gulf of California. But periodically, it switched course and began to drain northwest into the Salton Trough, refilling Lake Cahuilla. When full, the water level in the lake could rise to 13 meters above sea level.
“It has this tendency to flip-flop back and forth,” said Rockwell. “But when the Colorado drains to the Gulf of California, Lake Cahuilla would just dry up over a period of 50, 60, or 70 years.”
Sediments from these repeated filling events resulted in fertile soils in the Imperial Valley. An irrigation canal was created around 1900 to bring water from the Colorado River to the Valley for farming, but in 1905, springtime flooding ruptured the canal and gushed toward the Salton Trough, partially refilling the lake to form the Salton Sea. Once the breach was repaired, the water level remained well below that of Lake Cahuilla’s previous incarnations.
To reconstruct its early hydrologic history, Rockwell’s team sampled charcoal, wood, seeds and other organic matter from nearly a dozen in the former lake’s basin. The charcoal samples likely came from cooking fires once used by Indigenous people who inhabited the region.
Historical accounts told of the Colorado River flowing toward the Gulf of California rather than the Salton Trough in 1706, indicating that the lakebed was dry at that time. Based on radiocarbon dating of drowned stumps, Rockwell’s team determined that the last lake to form before the advent of the Salton Sea reached its highest point around 1731.
“But it had to have started drying up by 1732 or 33,” Rockwell said.
Based on an approximate rate of evaporation, that would have made it possible to completely dry out by the time Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition passed through the area in 1774 and reported that the lakebed had no water in it.
BY BRYANT JONES AND MICHAEL MCKIBBEN
Geothermal energy has long been the forgotten member of the clean energy family, overshadowed by relatively cheap solar and wind power, despite its proven potential. But that may soon change—for an unexpected reason.
Lithium is essential for lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and energy storage. Demand for these batteries is quickly rising, but the U.S. is currently heavily reliant on lithium imports from other countries—most of the nation’s lithium supply comes from Argentina, Chile, Russia, and China. The ability to recover critical minerals from geothermal brines in the U.S. could have important implications for energy and mineral security, as well as global supply chains, workforce transitions, and geopolitics.
As a geologist who works with geothermal brines and an energy policy scholar, we believe this technology can bolster the nation’s critical minerals supply chain at a time when concerns about the supply chain’s security are rising.
ENOUGH LITHIUM TO FAR EXCEED TODAY’S US DEMAND
Geothermal power plants use heat from the earth to generate a constant supply of steam to run turbines that produce electricity. The plants operate by bringing up a complex saline solution located far underground, where it absorbs heat and is enriched with minerals such as lithium, manganese, zinc, potassium, and boron.
Geothermal brines are the concentrated liquid left over after heat and steam are extracted at a geothermal plant. In the Salton Sea plants, these brines contain high concentrations—about 30%—of dissolved solids.
If test projects now underway prove that battery-grade lithium can be extracted from these brines cost effectively, 11 existing geothermal plants along the Salton Sea alone could have the potential to produce enough lithium metal to provide about 10 times the current U.S. demand.
Three operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are in various stages of designing, constructing, and testing pilot plants for direct lithium extraction from the hot brines.
At full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea, which currently generate about 432 megawatts of electricity, could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year. At current prices, the annual market value of this metal would be more than $5 billion.
California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, is a vast pool of pesticides and dead fish – but it was once an incredibly popular vacation destination. This is the story of its accidental creation as the result of a poorly placed canal, its rise, its downfall, and its future. Watch to learn about California’s forgotten inland sea.
Whitewater River Dries Up
Source: Desert Sun
The Whitewater River, which normally flows year round in the Southern California canyon that bears its name, has run dry there, confounding some hikers expecting a brisk and scenic flow after recent heavy rains.
But those storms are the culprits, says Whitewater Preserve manager Lucas Wilgers, who oversees the area for the Wildlands Conservancy.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive … but when larger storms happen, so much water is falling such a short period of time, it just accumulates and kind of coalesces up above,” he said.
Fast-moving water carries mud, ash and other debris — including material from the 2020 Apple Fire burn scar — down from steep mountain slopesand dumps it at the stretch of river in the preserve, about 20 minutes northwest of Palm Springs in Whitewater Canyon.
The projects shown on this map would protect about 30,000 acres of playa that would otherwise be exposed along the shoreline. While the central body of water is expected to reduce in size over time, these projects would allow water to be distributed from the outer elevations to the lower center lake to reduce dust emissions from potentially exposed areas.