Salton Sea – From Miracle in the Desert to Environmental Disaster

Salton Sea – From Miracle in the Desert to Environmental Disaster

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A fleet of wrecked fishing boats, tinted orange with rust. Fleets of RVs decaying into rusted ruin; roofs caved in with no walls to hold them up. Pieces of debris scattered everywhere, remnants of life littered across the dusty, barren land. Bombay Beach: a community abandoned, leaving a ghost town in its place. This is what you’ll find on the shores of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, a one-time tourist paradise turned into an ecological disaster zone.

The Salton Sea was formed at the beginning of the 20th century when construction on an irrigation canal from the Colorado River to the old Alamo River channel was dug to provide water to the Imperial Valley area for farming. In 1905, the Colorado River broke through the head-gate of the canal, due to a series of spring floods, and filled the nearby desert basin with its inflow for 18 months. This engineering accident created what is now known as the Salton Sea, which is currently about 15 by 35 miles or 24 by 56 kilometers. The Salton Sea continued to be fed by farmers of the Imperial Valley who used too much water from the Colorado River and continued to let the excess water flow into the basin, keeping it filled. 

By the 1950s and 60s, the newborn sea had become known for its large stock of fish and birds. It was made into a popular vacation destination advertised as “The Miracle in the Desert”, with hotels and vacation homes built on its beaches. The sea is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, a migration route for birds, so the area drew crowds of birdwatchers that came to see over 400 species. The area also boasted millions of visitors coming to enjoy the beaches and fish in the plentiful waters. 

But this bliss wouldn’t last long. The Salton Sea has no outlet, so water is lost when it evaporates. This leaves deposits of dissolved salt which have been gradually increasing the salinity of the sea for decades. By the 1980s, the high salinity paired with contamination from the runoff of farms formed a deadly habitat for the wildlife. The blooms of algae covering the salt-choked water deprived the fish of oxygen in the water, causing massive fish deaths. By the turn of the 21st century the once beautiful beaches were piled with hundreds, even millions of rotting fish skeletons. The sea was now considered toxic and tourism disappeared, along with much of the wildlife. 

By 1999, the lake began to shrink as farmers started to practice water conservation, meaning less water flowed in. This further increased the salinity as the water evaporated, leaving more of the lakebed exposed. By January 2020, the salinity of the sea was double that of the Atlantic Ocean. Winds and storms carried toxic dust from the lake bed into the surrounding communities, drastically polluting the air. Now, Imperial County is known for some of the worst air quality in the country. Asthma-related emergency room visits are more than double the state’s average, as the microscopic dust particles are constantly circulating through the air and coating nearly every surface. 

In 2012, the cloud of sulfurous odor coming from the Salton Sea was so thick that people in Los Angeles, 150 miles away, reported smells of rotten eggs. In 2015, the air in the area was so polluted that it failed to meet the state’s daily safety standards for more than a third of the year. Clearly, something needed to be done. It was not only an environmental concern, but a public health emergency. 

Most of the efforts regarding the Salton Sea are focused on studying and researching its toxins and public health impact. There have been proposals to restore the sea by filling the basin with water, covering up the lakebed. The Salton Sea Management Task Force was formed in 2015 as part of the Salton Sea Management Program, a $200 million plan to restore the lake with wetlands and air quality improvement projects over 10 years. Trench-like structures have been built in the sand to catch dust particles, with limited success. There have been other proposals, but the sea is so polluted that the money often runs out before they can make much progress. 

However the Salton Sea has received attention recently for another reason: lithium. With the area estimated to be able to supply up to 40% of the global demand, the mining company Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), backed by car giant General Motors, has grand plans to turn the Salton Sea into a lithium mine. As climate change and pollution become increasingly important, environmentally friendly electric cars powered by lithium batteries have come to the forefront. Yet there are many concerns regarding the environmentally harmful effects of lithium mining. To address these concerns, CTR plans to use 10 geothermal power stations to pump brine from the earth, extract the lithium, and then return the brine to the earth. This method avoids using open pit evaporation and uses less energy and water, thereby cutting down the area’s industrial footprint. But will this still add more pollution to an already heavily polluted area? CTR seems confident that it won’t, but the industry is so new so it’s hard to tell.  

How did the Salton Sea feel when all of the people, fish, and birds left? Salty. 

All jokes aside, the Salton Sea is an environmental disaster that is not getting any better. It’s a crisis and it has been for decades. It’s a warning and physical reminder of the consequences of not taking care of the earth. If we don’t make the move towards renewable energy, then we too might find ourselves salty as our planet itself becomes a ghost town. 

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