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article imageCalifornia's Salton Sea — A 'looming crisis' years in the making

By Karen Graham     Nov 22, 2014 in Environment
Around 150 miles east of Los Angeles, in the hot desert of the Imperial and Coachella valleys, lies one of man's biggest ecological disasters. The 375-square mile Salton Sea was an engineering accident, never meant to be, but now its in serious trouble.
The Salton Sea sits right on the San Andreas fault, and like Death Valley, it is below sea level. At this point in time, its surface is 234 ft (71.3 m) below sea level, and it is 25 percent saltier than the ocean, but not quite as salty as Utah's Great Salt Lake. It is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo Rivers, as well as a great deal of agricultural run-off and a few small creeks.
Creating a man-made environmental nightmare
The Salton Sea was an engineering accident. In 1900, engineers with the California Development Company devised a plan to dig irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley to bring much needed water for farming. When water started flowing, silt buildup became a problem, so a cut was made in the bank of the Colorado River to increase water flow.
1903 Photograph of the [Imperial?] Canal congested with water from the Colorado River after five uns...
1903 Photograph of the [Imperial?] Canal congested with water from the Colorado River after five unsuccessful attempts at channeling the river. This is the break which formed the present Salton Sea.
Charles C. Pierce
The increased water flow was so strong it breached the canal, and overflowed, forming the massive lake before the breach was repaired almost two years later. The low, empty depression straddling Riverside and Imperial counties became the Salton Sea, considered to be one of the greatest man-made environmental nightmares ever. Developers saw it as a great economic opportunity.
Over the next several years, occasional flooding from the Colorado River would inundate the Imperial Valley. At various times between the years 1904 and 1906, seasonal flooding carried the entirety of the Colorado River into the newly formed lake.
Checkerboard fields of the Imperial Valley are fed by waters from the Colorado River. The drainage f...
Checkerboard fields of the Imperial Valley are fed by waters from the Colorado River. The drainage from these fields flows into the Salton Sea, seen in the background. It is now all but dead.
Charles O'Rear, (NARA record: 3403717)
By the 1920s, Congress authorized the use of the lake as a reservoir for agricultural run-off. This added additional water to the lake, as well as solving the problem of what to do with the chemical-laden run-off. State officials began stocking the lake with fish, hoping to attract visitors.
Salton Sea becomes California's Riviera for a short time
The area around the Salton Sea became a resort area during the 1950s and into the early 1960s. During its heyday, thousands of boaters and fisherman swarmed the resort towns of Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores, as well as a number of other towns that are now long forgotten. It even became so popular it rivaled Yosemite National Park. Today, one finds empty shells of homes and businesses, drying in the hot sun.
Four unfinished and abandoned houses in Salton City  CA on the west shore of Salton Sea.
Four unfinished and abandoned houses in Salton City, CA on the west shore of Salton Sea.
Gentle
As we now know, the agricultural run-off, combined with the naturally salty soil of the desert where the Salton Sea is located, caused the salinity levels to rise. About the only fish that could survive the saltiness and pollution was the Tilapia, a Rift Valley fish native to the Rift lakes of Eastern Africa. There are other fish species inhabiting the rivers and canals that feed the lake. You can find carp, shiners, channel cats and a few others, including the endangered desert pupfish.
Keeping the Salton Sea fed with water is an ecological imperative
Over the last few decades, the Salton Sea has been the center of a number of news stories, most often about the die-off of either thousands of fish, or brown pelicans. But in 1992, 150,000 eared grebes died on the Salton Sea, grabbing the attention of the media all across the nation.
Thousands of Tilapia line the shores of the Salton Sea because of a depletion of oxygen in the pollu...
Thousands of Tilapia line the shores of the Salton Sea because of a depletion of oxygen in the polluted waters.
Jeff T.
In 1997, Congressman Sonny Bono, also the former Mayor of Palm Springs, made it his fight to restore the Salton Sea, forming the Congressional Salton Sea Task Force. In 1998, Congress passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act. The Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Reclamation, was directed to "prepare a feasibility study on restoration of the Salton Sea and submit it to Congress by January 1, 2000.”
While the feasibility study was in the works, in 1999, over 7.6 million tilapias and croakers died from oxygen depletion due to overgrowth of algae in the Salton Sea. It wasn't until 2003 that Southern California Water Districts agreed to sign-off on the Quantification Settlement Agreement. This agreement is supposed to allow the transfer of 300,000 acre feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego County Water Authority. $300 million is also provided for Salton Sea restoration.
The purpose of the agreement meant that California would become less dependent on water allotment from the Colorado River, and would also be working to restore the ecological balance of the Salton Sea. But the agreement ended up being hamstrung by a number of civil suits brought because there was a question of whether the agreement had undergone proper environmental reviews and adhered to the California Environmental Quality Act.
Finally, after 10 years, on June 6, 2013, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly upheld the apportionment agreement. “The Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement and its cornerstone water transfer agreements mean long-term water security for our region’s $188 billion economy and the quality of life of 3.1 million residents,” said Thomas V. Wornham, Chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors, said in a statement.
The Salton Sea's looming environmental crisis is close at hand
imperial Irrigation District officials sent a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board this past week. They asked that the board help in negotiations to get the state to make good on its obligation to stop the deterioration of the sea caused by the sale of Imperial Valley water to San Diego County. (Remember the Quantification Settlement Agreement?).
Imperial District is saying that after six-months of negotiations, with nothing happening, they want the water board "to condition water [sales] on the state satisfying its unmet restoration obligation at the Salton Sea." On Friday, the state Water Control Board met, and while seemingly showing some interest, stopped short of making any promises to help with negotiations.
"We will carefully review the document and respond as appropriate with the goal of ensuring that the [water deal] continues to provide benefits for San Diego County and the rest of California as it has done for more than a decade," said Dan Denham, director of the water authority's Colorado River program.
So right now, in Southern California there sits a stinking, polluted and dying lake, the largest man-made lake in the state. Yes, it was an accident, and never should have come to pass, but its too late to cry over spilt water. There are a number of great ideas for restoring the lake, and they would benefit both the state Water Board and benefit farmers in the valley.
As long as the state refuses to uphold its end of the agreement, Californians can expect the Salton Sea to continue to dry up. Besides the smell of rotting eggs, there will be more toxic chemicals swirling in the air as the winds spread the contaminated dust from the drying sea bed.
More about salton sea, imperial irrigation district, Ecological disaster, Water Resources Control Board, toxic seabed
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