Updated: Jul 17, 2019
The Salton Sea sits roughly 140 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the desert. Measuring close to 350 square miles, it is California’s largest lake. But it is shrinking rapidly and gaining salinity due to a lack of inflowing water. Sediment previously covered by the water is now becoming airborne and creating a public health crisis, and valuable wildlife habitat is being lost.
In 2003 the state of California created the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) which reallocated water from the Colorado River that historically had been used for agriculture around the Salton Sea. It was determined that, starting in 2018, the water would no longer go to the agriculture fields and would instead be used for residential irrigation in several Southern California cities. This caused the main flow of fresh water going into the sea to be cut off, essentially accelerating the pace of evaporation and increases of salinity levels.
The Salton Sea provides critical habitat for over 400 species of birds, as well as other wildlife. But this ecosystem is beginning to deteriorate because of the shrinking water levels and increased salinity. Tilapia, which is the last remaining fish species in the sea, are struggling to tolerate the rapid changes to the water. Because of this, it has been reported many birds like pelicans which rely on the fish for food have seen a sharp decline in their numbers.
But hope may be on the horizon. Awareness is increasing of the dire situation. For example, a group of students from nearby Indio High School are getting involved in coming up with solutions. They are studying the water and soil to understand what makes a healthy ecosystem work and how they might be able to change the course of the Salton Sea’s fate.
Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea Program Director for the California Audubon Society, has been a major influence in making people more aware of the threats facing this important habitat as well. Because of advocacy by people like him, the severity of the situation has come to the attention of state and federal lawmakers. Last month a bill, H.R.2740, was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives which would commit $30 million if passed by the Senate for restoration efforts at the Salton Sea. Congressman Raul Ruiz (D-CA) also included an amendment in the bill that would secure an additional $2 million for Salton Sea projects.
This momentum, along with new plans being explored to direct water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to mitigate the declining water levels, show promising signs that California is growing closer to finally solving a decades-long struggle to prevent a massive environmental disaster.