Time is running out to come up with a plan to save the Salton Sea. Water levels in California’s largest lake continue to drop, subjecting nearby communities to harmful levels of toxic dust stirred up from the dry, exposed lakebed.
For more than a century, the shallow lake has been a beneficiary of the Colorado River water that feeds the nearby Imperial Valley farm fields. As water was sold off and diverted, more than 15,000 acres of lakebed containing years of fertilizer and pesticide runoff were exposed to the air and desert winds.
The dwindling water supply increases the lake’s salinity, killing off fish, destroying once-lush migratory bird habitats and making children sick from the airborne toxins stirred up in the dust.
The California Natural Resources Agency was tasked with coming up with a long-term fix by the end of 2022, and 11 plans on the table focus mainly on one big idea: pulling in water across the U.S.-Mexican border from the Sea of Cortez north to the Salton Sea. Some proposals are more ambitious than others, envisioning tourism and shipping industries popping up along the desert canal.
Though full costs are unknown, fixing the Salton Sea arguably would be the biggest North American water project since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
What’s happening to the lake?
The modern Salton Sea – which has filled several times before – formed in 1905, when floodwaters from the Colorado River to the east breached an irrigation canal and dumped into a low-lying area called the Salton Sink, a depression in the desert that formed the lower basin of the ancient prehistoric Lake Cahuilla.
In the hundred years since the lake formed, it’s been sustained by agricultural runoff and became a rare stopover point for migratory birds traveling the Pacific Flyway.
As the Colorado River water has been transferred from the farms neighboring the lake to growing urban areas, the Salton Sea’s footprint has shrunk.
The water transfer between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego Water Authority has escalated to more than 200 thousand acre feet this year… doubling the original 100 thousand per year provided since the 2003 Quantification Settlement agreement (QSA) was signed.
Across the vast expanse of the Salton Sea, white gold can be found deep below the waters. The Salton Sea has been called “Lithium Valley” for good reason.
“One of the single best locations, one of the largest geothermal reservoirs in the world is right at the Salton Sea,” Jonathan Weisgall, Vice President of Government Relations for Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
The Salton Sea runs along what’s called “The Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe of high volcanic activity where the most geothermal movement can be found.
Along the dusty shoreline of the Salton Sea, you could blink and you’d miss it: the Ski Inn, the only bar around the east side of the lake for 40 miles.
This neighborhood bar and restaurant in Bombay Beach is a local watering hole that’s been here for decades, an obscure Anthony Bourdain stop, wallpapered with dollar bills from visitors through the years. It’s certainly a bar that’s seen better days.
“There was five bars in this town. And they were all packed every weekend. And slowly, they all went away,” said Sonia Herbert, the owner of the Ski Inn.
Gone away with the shrinking waters of the Salton Sea, Herbert said, as she has watched life at the lake wither away for the past 45 years.
“It’s a crying shame that they’re letting this whole beautiful area die,” Herbert said.
It’s a strange phenomenon when the average Californian can tell you more about the breathtaking beauty of Lake Tahoe or the dizzyingly good times at Lake Havasu than that state’s largest lake. And in cases where they have heard of it, you would likely get complaints about the smell or the dead fish.
The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, starts at the southern end of the Coachella Valley, and it’s unlike any lake you’ve seen before. This body of water in the Colorado Desert stretches 35 miles long, boasting mesmerizing views, and it’s surface area is nearly big enough to swallow up the entire Coachella Valley. While the sights make for beautiful photos, authorities caution visitors against touching the water.
Just a short drive south of Palm Springs, you’ll find California’s largest lake. The drive along the circumference of the Salton Sea reveals surprising, majestic views unlike anything you’d expect to find in the desert. But for its impressive sights and size, the Salton Sea is not a household name, least of all in the very state it’s found. These days, if you travel along the increasingly shrinking shorelines, you’ll see suffering communities dotted with abandoned homes and lined with silent streets.
Here is an essential piece of California’s water future it’s hard to imagine there’s so much it staying there’s no pristine fresh water, 25% salt in the ocean it exists because of the water draining from the Farms into the slow place in the desert that has no Outlet so evaporation is causing increased salt concentration in the water.
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.