American white pelicans, © USFWS/Paul Boyte

Time is Running Out for the Salton Sea

Thirteen years ago, the California State Water Resources Control Board and state Legislature decided to approve the largest agriculture-to-urban transfer of water in the country. At its peak, the water transfer would move more than 367,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from farmland in the Imperial Valley to coastal urban Southern California each year. That’s enough water to supply the household needs for more than 2.2 million people for an entire year! At the time, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners – including the Pacific Institute, Sierra Club, and Audubon California – argued that any transfer had to address the environmental consequences of diverting so much water. While the transfer was necessary to create a more reliable water supply for the residents of San Diego and Palm Springs without taking that water from the fragile Bay Delta, we knew it would have an enormous impact on the Salton Sea that could not be ignored.

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American Avocet, © Dan Walters

The Sea (actually a saltwater lake) is fed primarily by the runoff from nearby agricultural fields. How much water flows into the Sea in any given year depends on how much water these fields receive. The transfer reduces the water to the fields by more than 300,000 acre-feet of water each year. We warned the Board that as the water level in the Sea lowered, it would expose more 70,000 acres of dusty and dry sea bed by 2047, and accelerate the path of the Salton Sea habitat toward biological collapse.

Sacrificing the Salton Sea is not an option. It provides habitat for more than 400 species of birds – approximately two-thirds of all bird species in the continental U.S. As a critical stopover on the Pacific Flyway, it is one of the most important locales for migratory birds in the Western United States. When the water transfer is operating at full capacity, these species will pay the price. The Sea’s remaining fish population will crash, eliminating food for birds – both those that live there, and those passing through. In addition, the shallow waters around the southern and northern ends of the Sea, which are important feeding and resting areas for migrating shorebirds, will disappear. With these important habitats destroyed, migratory birds will have few options to rest and feed during their migration up and down the Pacific flyway.

Less water flowing to the Sea will also create severe health issues for human residents in this region. It will leave more than 100 square miles of lakebed exposed to the wind, creating horrific dust storms to plague a region that already has the highest rates of childhood asthma in California. And because of the chemicals that agricultural run-off can carry, the problem is more than just dust. More than 650,000 people in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys will be exposed to fine dust filled with pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic pollutants. One report found that the combined impacts to wildlife habitat and public health could cost the state as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years.

Yellow-footed Gull, © Ron KnightThe state recognized that these were all real problems that would need to be addressed, so it came up with a deal to buy everyone some time. The water board required the seller to send additional water to the Sea for 15 years to keep it from receding. In the meantime, the State of California promised to take the lead in coming up with a plan for a more sustainable Sea. More importantly, the State agreed to make sure that the impacts of the water transfer were mitigated, even if actions taken by the regional water agencies weren’t enough to fully address the impacts. With those commitments in place, the water transfer went forward, and the clock started counting down toward the end of supplied water in 2017.

Today the Salton Sea is about two and a half years away from disaster, with no plan in place. Since 2002, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners have been working to encourage state and local authorities to create a solution. We have testified at hearings and workshops, written letters, and generally served as a constant reminder of the deal that was struck in order for California to have a more reliable water supply. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made, it has not been nearly enough. Now in the midst of a devastating drought, California finds itself standing at a precipice: If they do not take action soon, the Salton Sea will begin to unravel at the end of 2017.

As the deadline for the Sea looms, in the last three months, Defenders has had the opportunity to raise our concerns in public hearings and in letters to the state. We have been urging the State of California, in collaboration with local interests and the environmental community, to develop a coordinated, holistic plan within the next six months to address the air, wildlife, and water quality problems at the Salton Sea, as well as a sound financial plan to pay for these mitigation actions. For more than decade, California has had the benefit of more water in its urban areas without impact to the Salton Sea. Now, time is running out. The State of California has to decide whether it intends to prevent or invite an environmental and public health disaster. Either way, the clock is ticking.

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11 Responses to “Time is Running Out for the Salton Sea”

  1. Martha

    There has to be another solution. Think of the future of all species. We impact one another inn any shape or form. It’s not just the lake you will be devastating…you will effect the places where these birds travel to and what their part dies in that ecosystem. Yes I’m Canadian but we all need to work together for each other. There are brilliant minds out there that can Come up with a solution all you need to do is listen to them and I’m sure it will be positive for all our sakes. Thankful for taking the time to read this. That time is equivalent to one That has the solution.

  2. Jessica Murk

    Is there a petition I can sign to save the wildlife in question? Unfortunately I don’t have money to donate.

  3. gary mackey

    The state of Cal. should have enough smarts to start making systems like all ships and subs do. They have the entire sea at their front door and should open their eyes to converting sea water into fresh water. Stop messing with the wildlife habitates and the safety of the people, before they have major law suits and disasters on their hands.

  4. Lynne Wright - Photographer/Realtor

    Seems like a bit too much water transfer.

  5. Michael A. Schoenfield

    I’m sending this email to let you know about what I may be able to do for Defenders. I’m retired, but I’m not dead & I’ve have skills that may be of use to Defenders. As far as my career went, I was extremely involved in working in the legislature & in Wisconsin

  6. Cheryl

    Please leave the wet lands alone. We need them for the bird’s so they can help keep us all safe, healthy, and not cause more devastating effects on life.

  7. Cheryl

    Please leave the wet lands alone. We need them for the bird’s so they can help stop more devastating effects on life.

  8. Madalyn

    Has anyone of you on this site ever been to the Salton Sea? at least Lately? Because I just went 1 month ago Its not even safe for those birds to be feeding or migrating there.Its a real bad and toxic situation. I live in Palm Springs and we get stink bombs over here all the time. I smell the chemicals in the air. I tell my daughter to plug her nose. Whats going to end up happening is the State of California is going to neglect this in till they have to deal with it and more people will die of bad air quality ( 3 children have already died in Imperial Co from the air quality and should be suing the state ) and then the lawsuits will start rolling in. Only then will they finally do something…but it will probrably be too late. What amazes me is you have all these rich golfers in the Coachella Valley yet none of them care that they will not even be able to golf here in 3 years or live their posh lives the way they do. Hollywood stars…this is going to effect you too…this is going to effect all of Southern California if not all of California. I say we start getting these people to realize that their beautiful California is going to be non existent in 3 years and get these rich people to start contributing to a fund to help the Salton Sea or they will have no paradise left. Why does Mayor Brown think this is not important? Get out of office Mr. Brown. Shame on the people that were on Sonny Bono’s side when he was living and tried to do something about this disaster and then after Sonny died they just gave up. Sonny’s probably turning over in his grave as I speak . We need to give the Hollywood stars and all the narcissistic rich people a nice simulation visual of what is actually going to happen so they see that this will effect them too and their lives. If I was famous I would put every dime I have into cleaning up the Salton Sea but I’m not..I’m only one person who has no money and no clout. I personally am moving from California next month because I will not raise my child here anymore…and I grew up here my whole life…but if by chance God blesses me with fame or money…I will do everything I can to fix the Salton Sea. If Donald Trump wants to make America great again maybe he should donate some money to clean up the Salton sea…that would be nice 🙂

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