New Hope for the Salton Sea

Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

By Michael Cohen, Senior Associate, Pacific Institute

The Salton Sea, a vast saltwater lake in remote southeastern California providing crucial habitat for birds and wildlife, is quickly approaching a tipping point. Yet several recent actions give hope the lake could turn a corner in the near future.

Just yesterday, California announced the appointment of a very knowledgeable and action-oriented leader to the newly-created position of assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. Last year, California voters approved a massive water bond with a sizeable chunk of money that could be directed toward Salton Sea activities. And, consensus is beginning to emerge over short- and medium-term projects at the declining Salton Sea.

Sitting some 234 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea formed in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded, tearing through an unprotected diversion canal and refilling a former lakebed in the desert. Today, irrigation water flows through the fields of the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali valleys and drains into the lake, sustaining it.

This water offsets evaporation losses; without it, the lake would steadily shrink and eventually disappear. This process concentrates the salts and other contaminants carried by the river and from the fields themselves.

Although the Salton Sea is 50 percent saltier than the ocean, it supports more than 420 different species of resident and migratory birds, ranging from white and brown pelicans to eared grebes, curlews, ibis, avocets and snowy plovers. It also supports millions of fish and a host of invertebrates, important food sources for the birds.

Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

The amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea will soon decrease dramatically, with rapid and catastrophic consequences. Fish will die out. Birds will lose their food source. The lake will shrink and the exposed lakebed —> Read More