May 20, 2016 by


CREDIT: Alejandro Davila Fragoso

Dead tilapia lines the shores of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Located in Imperial County, the manmade Salton Sea is drying up fast, threatening the fate of fish, migratory bird species and even public health as exposed playa will create dust bowls, harming an area known for high asthma rates and high levels of air pollution.

BOMBAY BEACH, CALIFORNIA — The lake is drying up, uncounted dead fish line the shore, and the desert town is losing people.

It could be the plot of a post-apocalyptic movie set in the future, but this is actually happening here and it has been going on for years. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time when this town was booming. There was a time when the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, was the “French Riviera” of the state, and the pride and joy of Imperial County. But that was decades ago, during the Sea’s heydays of the 1950s and 1960s. Back when this area had luxury resorts, piers, yachts, and thousands of visitors, including stars like Frank Sinatra — who owned a house in nearby Palm Springs and would come down to see Guy Lombardo sail his speedboat.

“You couldn’t put a towel on the beach,” Larry Wiebalk, 69, told ThinkProgress as he relaxed on his porch one recent morning. “When it was the heydays we had five bars here,” he recalled before jokingly adding there are now only two left because you have to bar hop. There was fishing, too, after people introduced freshwater desert pupfish, striped mullet, mosquitofish, and then, as the lake’s salinity increased, saltwater corvina, and tilapia that until the 1970s thrived in this 350-square-mile lake. “The fishing was the best of the world,” Wiebalk said.

But all the allure of the resorts, the yachts, the visitors, and the fishing has dwindled away, leaving in its place a looming environmental disaster that experts said threatens the air of Imperial, Riverside and even Los Angeles counties. If that’s the case Bombay Beach seems like the first victim. The area looks and feels desolate. Many homes are boarded up, graffitied, or otherwise vandalized. If the “broken windows” theory was local policy, this town would be overrun with deputies. But there’s no need for that because the place is peaceful, residents said. And that’s no surprise. Bombay Beach has lost about half its population since the year 2000, according to the most recent data, and now has about 170 people, mostly retirees, living across a dying lake that is nonetheless surrounded by all kinds of life.

“I really like it here, my daughter thinks I’m nuts, but I do like it here,” Karen Bingham, 69, told ThinkProgress as she finished her morning walk and sat next to Wiebalk, her boyfriend. “I love the Sea, it’s so sad that it’s losing so much water.”

A Looming Disaster

FROM LEFT: Rudy Rudenick and Larry Wiebalk share jokes one recent morning.

FROM LEFT: Rudy Rudenick and Larry Wiebalk share jokes one recent morning.

CREDIT: Alejandro Davila Fragoso

Located some 150 miles south of Los Angeles, the Salton Sea has been receding since the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the nation went into effect in 2004. Experts reached for this story said the Salton Sea’s demise will have dire ramifications for fish, hundreds of migratory bird species, and the air of at least 1.5 million people in Southern California and Northern Mexico, unless mitigation projects happen soon. With less water going in, the Sea is evaporating fast and losing a half-foot of elevation each year. That rate will accelerate starting in 2018 as mitigation waters now flowing into the Sea will end. Moreover, experts said a warmer climate makes evaporation a larger foe.

Imperial, an impoverished border county of some 177,000 people, was for more than a decade unable to get state funding to fix the Salton Sea. The money was something California promised it would provide when Imperial pledged to transfer water that ultimately reached the Salton Sea to San Diego. This year, and for the first time ever, the state allocated $80.5 million for the Sea in its proposed budget, but local leaders note that may be too little, too late, and they fear that funding could be reduced or taken away.


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

The factors behind the Salton Sea’s problems and the urgency to solve them are as convoluted as the politics of inaction that have pushed this man-made lake to the edge. These politics have tainted the issue for so long that many said it’s difficult to point fingers, though all agreed the state always promised to pay. All experts reached agreed too that the expected end result of inaction is rather simple: as evaporation makes waters recede, more than 50,000 acres of lakebed could be exposed, making large dust bowls almost certain thanks to the region’s robust and often unpredictable wind events. To make matters worse, because the Salton Sea has been fed almost exclusively by agricultural runoff since its accidental creation in the early 1900s, its sediments have traces of pesticides and PCBs, as well as other less toxic substances like selenium, according to studies.

This would mean pesticide-laden dust could be blown on the winds to affect air quality as far as Los Angeles.

“From an air quality perspective that’s pretty bad — not pretty bad — that’s very bad,” said Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, a newly-created position within California’s Natural Resources Agency. “The air quality, of course, translates to human health, economic viability here in the valley, and agriculture,” he told ThinkProgress. Meanwhile, Imperial County is already violating Environmental Protection Agency air quality limits due to desert storms, agricultural burning, and its proximity to Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California and one of the most air polluted cities in Mexico. As a result, the county’s childhood hospitalizations for asthma are now twice the state average, according to state data submitted to ThinkProgress. Air quality in Riverside County, which holds a small portion of the north end of the Salton Sea, consistently ranks among the worst in the nation.

Yet the Salton Sea is more than just a massive dust suppressor and an agricultural drainage reservoir for the county that produces two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the United States during the winter. Over the years, the Sea has become a valuable wildlife refuge, and a prime resting place for migratory birds as more than 90 percent of California wetlands were drained for human development. “You got a situation now where the Salton Sea is about the last large-scale stopover point of the Pacific flyway,” said Wilcox, referring to the major flyway for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. “And if you lose that stopover point, I don’t know what happens to the birds.”

Birds take flight from the Salton Sea. Located on what is called the "Pacific flyway," heavy migrations of waterfowl, marsh and seabirds take advantage of the Salton Sea during spring and fall.

Birds take flight from the Salton Sea. Located on what is called the “Pacific flyway,” heavy migrations of waterfowl, marsh and seabirds take advantage of the Salton Sea during spring and fall.

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A Salty Water Transfer

Understanding the many roads that turned the Salton Sea into a valuable resource — and now a pressing threat — means looking back into the engineering of the Colorado River that allowed agriculture in the fertile deserts of Southern California. In 1905, as Imperial County pioneers built the system to farm the desert, the Colorado River broke through some of the diversion canals, flooding the ancient basin of Lake Cahuilla, one of five waterways that have been in the Salton Sink through geologic times. Water spilled into the Salton Sink, a large basin, for some two years, covering a salt company and salt deposits said to cover 1,000 acres, according to the Salton Sea Visitor Museum.

The Salton Sea has no outlet and no recent natural water sources, but over the years, it nonetheless grew as it received agricultural runoff mostly from the Alamo and the New rivers, both ephemeral waterways that farm runoff turned into constant flows. During its peak as much as 1.3 million acre-feet of water flowed into the Sea, according to published reports. To date, more than 90 percent of Salton Sea inflows come from agricultural fields. These waters brought sodium and pesticides, including DDT, to the Sea and its sediments, though the quality of the inflows has improved as pesticide rules changed and the Sea itself is not considered toxic. In any case, 4 million tons of dissolved salts enter the Salton Sea every year, that’s the equivalent of approximately 13,500 train cars.

As its salinity increased, the introduced fish population grew, enticing a larger bird population. That’s how some 90 percent of the eared grebe, as well as more than 400 other bird species turned to the Salton Sea to rest, breed, and forage, particularly during the pleasant winter months. However, by the 1980s and 1990s salinity reached unbearable levels even for salt water fish species, causing mass die-offs that persist and happen often during the summer months, when water temperature rises and algae blooms take over sunlight and oxygen. That’s a problem not just for fish. A large amount of decomposing material available has sickened birds in the past. Moreover, winds have been able to stir this water and bring out noxious smells that in 2012 traveled all the way to Los Angeles, according to published reports.

Tilapia have been able to withstand the salinity, though that’s unsustainable and its numbers will decline as evaporation continues. As of now, the Salton Sea is almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. “So over the next four to five years we’ll have lost the fish,” Wilcox, the official with the state Natural Resources Agency, said.

The Salton Sea was an engineering accident but

The Salton Sea is the product of overrun canals but water has been in the area more often than not.

CREDIT: Salton Sea History Museum

Though the Salton Sea is an accident, the water transfer causing its demise is everything but. In fact, the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the nation, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), was heavily negotiated before it was signed in 2003 because water agencies knew the Salton Sea, its wildlife, and nearby public health was at stake.

Under this incremental deal, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) will eventually send by 2024 approximately 400,000 acre-feet of conserved water from Imperial County farms to urban water agencies primarily in the San Diego area. The deal was a win for dry coastal cities and forced desert farmers to be more efficient, but also broke the balance that kept the Salton Sea alive.

Marion Champion, IID spokeswoman, said California promised to restore the Salton Sea as part of the QSA. Water agencies, meanwhile, agreed to finance up to $133 million to mitigate transfer impacts. Part of the IID’s mitigation plan includes water transfers to the Sea, but those deliveries will end in December 2017, prompting the sea to recede much faster, and all impacts to happen much more quickly. There is a consensus that “the state’s failure to restore the Salton Sea will lead to the rapid degradation of air quality in the region, and cause irreparable damage to the health of the residents of Imperial and Riverside counties,” Champion told ThinkProgress via email.

Who’s To Blame

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown’s $122.6 billion proposed budget included $80.5 million for the Salton Sea, a first after 13 years, but a far cry from adequate considering meaningful mitigation will cost as much as $3 billion. “It’s a good start, but it’s nowhere near enough,” Jack Terrazas, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, told ThinkPogress. “We are hoping, of course, that it continues to be funded on an annual basis because then it can make an impact.”

However, the budget hasn’t been approved and Terrazas fears they could lose that funding now that Brown said he supports a $2 billion plan to build housing for the state’s mentally ill homeless population. “So we are thinking that [plan is] going to take money away from other areas,” said Terrazas. “We are just hoping they don’t take it away from the Salton Sea.”

Whether the Salton Sea funds stay in the budget is unclear, just as it’s unclear why it took so long for the Salton Sea to get proposed state funding. Michael Cohen, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a research nonprofit, said too much time was lost about a decade ago when the state created a “bloated” plan of $9 billion that was unlikely to be funded and none of the stakeholders favored. “That went nowhere and surely we lost a lot of momentum,” Cohen told ThinkProgress.

As momentum was lost and time passed, those working on the Salton Sea at times moved to other endeavors. “The Salton Sea has always seemed to be someone’s pet project from year to year, decade to decade,” Richard Brown, long-time columnist and former editor of the Imperial Valley Press, told ThinkProgress. “Like all pet projects, its problems outlive the people pulling the purse strings.”

Others note that a related litigation between the county of Imperial and the IID settled in 2013 was surely politically costly because the largest stakeholders came across as being at odds on the Salton Sea. And then there’s the notion that Imperial, a small and overwhelmingly Hispanic county that chronically battles double-digit unemployment rates, simply doesn’t have the power to muster the political will in Sacramento.

“We are on the edge here of seeing the largest air pollution disaster in North America, and if you had that kind of disaster looming in L.A County or San Francisco County, we would have seen action sooner,” Mike Lynes, Audubon California’s director of public policy for the National Audubon Society, told ThinkProgress.

Alberto Jiménez, 3, walks back to his dad who is waiting near the porch of their trailer home located just a block away from the Salton Sea.

Alberto Jiménez, 3, walks back to his dad who is waiting near the porch of their trailer home located just a block away from the Salton Sea.

CREDIT: Alejandro Davila Fragoso

A Plan Moving Forward

By all accounts, the Salton Sea is one of the largest, as well as the latest example of a water transfer drying up a lake — albeit, a man-made one. Early in 20th century, a thirsty Los Angeles dried up Owens Lake, exposing a massive lake bed 230 miles north of the city that became the largest single source of dust pollution in the nation.

“In terms of acreage, the amount of lake that could be exposed [in] the Salton Sea could be several times as large,” said Cohen, noting dust and wind particularities may mean that the Sea will not be as emissive. Still, “the big difference is there’s 650,000 in Coachella and Imperial [valleys], not including the million-plus people in Mexico who could be affected by this,” said Cohen while referring to the closest U.S. communities and Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California, located some 70 miles south of the Sea. “So it may be less total dust, but far more people affected.”

Another big difference is climate change and the extreme weather it influences. The projected temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius “makes a big difference in evaporation,” said Wilcox. Moreover, large parts of the Southwest are drier than they were during the 1930s Dust Bowl. The “dust bowl” effect occurs when sustained droughts deplete soil moisture. Soils are then lifted by winds, creating clouds of dust and sand. “We are very concerned moving forward about what climate change will do,” he said, “because we don’t have any room in the system, in the algorithm that defines the habitat.”

Wilcox, who lives in Imperial County, said the state is designing a program to control dust through vegetation enhancement, surface roughening, and other dust suppression techniques. This plan includes building wet marshes with brackish agricultural water around the edges of the Salton Sea as it recedes. That would provide not just dust suppression, but also some bird and fish habitat. The IID, the local water district, has already successfully built similar habitats nearby as part of the transfer mitigation program and birds are already using these so-called managed marshes.

A bird flies over an Imperial Irrigation District managed marsh some 20 miles south of the Salton Sea.

A bird flies over an Imperial Irrigation District managed marsh some 20 miles south of the Salton Sea.

CREDIT: Alejandro Davila Fragoso

Wilcox is cognizant, however, that the $80.5 million he has to work with is enough for just a couple of projects. But then again the plan is supposed to be incremental, Wilcox said, so he’s confident more funding will come. “Once you’ve got some momentum and some success, it becomes easier to get funding,” said Wilcox and added, “quite frankly, we lost a lot of time. We should have been starting 10 years ago, but we didn’t, so now it’s very important for us to get this program up and running.”

Though all experts reached said the Salton Sea will never be what it once was, all agreed that severe harm to wildlife and people can be averted with swift action and good management. “I think the big opportunity in the Salton Sea is that there’s so much water that’s going to continue to flow there. Maybe it’s 25 percent, or a third less, or even half, but that’s still a huge amount of water,” said Cohen. That means officials like Wilcox have a resource to use for effective dust suppression and thriving managed habitat projects that entice political interest. “Everyone wants a good story. Governors certainly like a good story,” said Cohen, who agrees that momentum is paramount. “So if we can start getting these projects on the ground and get some media reports saying, well, look at this, the birds are coming, then it’s easier to get the next segment going.”

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