Pondering the Future of the Salton Sea

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

The Salton Sea – one of California’s least dazzling but most important geographical features. Spanning 350 square miles across the Imperial and Coachella Valleys in Southern California’s Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in the state. It also provides a habitat for over 400 species of migrating birds flying along the Pacific Flyway, which runs down through Mexico. For these birds, the Salton Sea is a crucial oasis, but it is also of great importance to humans – the Salton Sea warms winds that blow down from the north, causing a unique microclimate at the south end of the lake that is ideal for agriculture, and its in this area that 80 percent of the U.S.’s winter crops are grown.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905, in a particularly rain-and-snow heavy year. Flooding of the Colorado River caused a re-routing of the Alamo Canal that in turn forged two new waterways, carrying huge amounts of water into the Salton Sink. In the 1950’s and 60’s, small resort towns with quaint names like Salton City and Desert Shores began to pop up around the lake’s perimeter, drawing the overflow of tourists from Palm Springs. However by the late 1960’s, it became evident that the salinity levels of the Sea were dangerously high, causing a threat to some fish species – the Sea continued to be fed from the Colorado River as well as agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but the amount varied year to year and the runoff often carried pesticides. Quickly, Salton Sea was abandoned as a vacation destination and left largely to sit dormant until interest picked up again in the 1990’s under the renewed efforts of Congressman Sonny Bono, who spearheaded efforts to save the Salton Sea when scientists discovered another problem: the Salton Sea was shrinking, and if trends weren’t reversed, it could disappear entirely.

Cut to the present and very recent past, after decades of losing water to the California Drought. In 2003, the Quanification Settlement Agreement was signed by the Department of the Interior, California, and its water-related agencies, agreeing on a method and timeline to slowly scale back the amount of water being siphoned into Salton Sea from the Colorado River, leaving more water for San Diego and its surrounding cities. A looming deadline of 2018 has been set, at which California’s Imperial Irrigation District must stop sending “mitigation” water to the lake. California is currently entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River a year, about thirty percent of the total volume. Of the 4.4 million, 2.6 million acre-feet are being used in the Imperial Valley alone, and the state as a whole regularly overdraws on its allotment, leaving neighboring states Arizona and Nevada with a smaller portion.

But the Salton Sea is so crucial as both a natural habitat and a vital component of the region’s agricultural productivity that efforts to preserve the Sea, at least in some sort of realistic, piecemeal fashion, are already underway. Pipelines are being shored up to prevent as much runoff in the transportation of water, and naturalists are researching which areas of the lake are most vital to migrating birds. It’s now up to California farmers, who are being asked to invest in more efficient water-saving technology that will result in less waste water, to make their contribution. But is the government in California doing enough to help this region’s farmers in making the transition, and can the conservation goals be met by the mandatory 2018 deadline? National Geographic looks more closely at the farmers in this area, fallowing programs, and the agricultural implications of a drier Salton Sea.

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