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.





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