Can California Save the Shrinking Salton Sea?

Bones of fish unable to survive the Salton Sea's salty waters lay scattered on the beach


In recent years the Salton Sea looks more like something out of the Mad Max universe than a thriving tourist spot. Stretches of the lake’s receding coastline look apocalyptic, otherworldly even - massive potholes oozing and bubbling shades of green and brown, fish bones scattered across the shore, a body of water whose edges are the same color of an ancient rusted can of paint.

The eyesore is California’s largest lake, although it’s been shrinking for some time now. The water level is set to drop even more dramatically soon: up until January of this year, water had been distributed by the State to flow into the Salton Sea in order to offset it’s receding shoreline. Now that it’s stopped, the water level is set to drop another 20 feet, even faster than before.

As sad as it is to see a former landmark wisp away, the effects of the drying lake are far beyond the sentimental. As the lake bed dries, it reveals a mud below that’s collected industrial waste throughout the years, chemical runoffs like pesticides from farms in the valley. In the area’s intense heat, this toxic mud can quickly turn to dust and blow into surrounding cities and neighborhoods.


Receding water levels leaves behind green, algae rich puddles along the shore


It’s easy to imagine massive plumes of dust rising off a dry lake and into people’s neighborhoods as a nuisance. But the air quality in the valley is not just annoying, it’s dangerous. And for residents, it’s seeked into their daily lives.

For 3 years in a row, the air quality in Imperial County has been lower than the daily safety standards set by California. For years, this has been largely the result of strong desert winds kicking up dust that’s been mixed with pesticides and soot from crop burns.

But now the quickly drying Salton Sea is setting itself to be another major source of air pollution. Already, nearly 1 in 5 children have asthma in the Imperial Valley, and the situation could get worse if the Salton Sea problem isn’t addressed.


An abandoned gas station in Bombay Beach


Fortunately, the often slow moving wheels of bureaucracy that have plagued restoration projects around the Salton Sea are starting to turn. A 10 year plan was released in 2017, allocating about $400 million towards suppressing the dust rising from the dried lake bed, as well as containing the receding water levels.

In addition, Proposition 68, passed in early June by California voters, will send another $200 million into Salton Sea problem solving.

The proposition is a measure set “to authorize $4 billion in general obligation bonds for state and local parks, environmental protection projects, water infrastructure projects, and flood protection projects.”



The "What's That?" Box

General obligation bond?

No relation to James. A general obligation bond, or GO bond for short, is a common debt instrument backed by a governing body used to fund a project or initiative, often related to restoration or public improvement projects. Since this kind of bond borrows from public taxes, it requires voters to decide yay or nay on how the money is used.



In the case of Prop. 68, California voters gave the go ahead to inject $4 billion worth of bonds into a variety of park projects. Initiatives range from neighborhood to national parks, including refurbishment, new neighborhood parks in neighborhoods without them, and restoration in desperately needed places, like the Salton Sea.

Many are happy to see money finally allocated into the lake, but some residents express a healthy skepticism toward any proposed efforts. Promises have been made before, but the lake only continues to shrink and the problem appears to be only getting worse.

For California, now is the time to act. Phil Kiddoo, an air pollution expert who worked to contain a similar problem of the dry Owens Lake, told The Verge in an article that the Salton Sea should be fixed as soon as possible. “You’ve got a dying patient,” he said, “and if you don’t act now, he’ll be dead.”

All this Salton is making me thirsty

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