Preservation of the Salton Sea


The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake covering 350 square miles. The lake is a terminal lake with no outflows and its salinity is 50 percent greater than that of the ocean. It was created by an engineering mistake when Colorado River floodwater breached an irrigation canal in 1905. Irrigation runoff from the Imperial and Coachella valleys and local rivers maintains the Salton Sea. Although the lake was created by accident, it is an essential habitat for a variety of species from fish to migratory birds.

The QSA Agreement

In 2003, California and three of its water districts, Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”), Coachella Valley Water District (“CVWD”), and San Diego County Water Authority (“SDCWA”) signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”). The primary purpose of the agreement was to ensure that California did not withdraw more than 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado River. In order to meet growing residential needs for water, IID agreed to transfer water from Imperial Valley farms to CVWD and SDCWA. Every year, IID agreed to send an additional 100,000 acre-feet of conserved water to CVWD and 200,000 acre-feet of conserved water to SDCWA. This makes the QSA “the largest ever farm-to-city water transfer in U.S. history.”

However, in order to transfer the additional conserved water to CVWD and SDWCA, California and the water districts knew that runoff from the Imperial Valley farms would decrease and threaten the Salton Sea which relies on the agricultural runoff to maintain its water levels. Because the Salton Sea is a saline terminal lake, the reduction of inflows not only causes the water levels of the lake to decrease, but also increases the salinity. Further, by reducing the inflows to the Salton Sea, the QSA poses a threat to the natural habitat of many species relying on the Salton Sea to survive.

To mitigate the harm to the Salton Sea caused by reducing farmland runoff, the QSA imposed water conservation measures on both IID and the state of California. First, the QSA agreement required IID to provide mitigation flows to the Salton Sea for 15 years after the agreement. After 2017, the QSA relieves IID’s duty to supply the Salton Sea because of increasing amounts of water sent to fulfill residential needs in CVWD and SDWCA. Once IID ceases sending mitigation water to the lake, the Salton Seas water levels will decline dramatically. The QSA also requires California to develop a plan by 2018 to maintain the Salton Seas water levels and minimize the harm caused by ceasing the mitigation water flows from IID.

Threats Caused By Reducing Flows to the Salton Sea

The declining water levels of the Salton Sea pose a threat to animals and humans alike. More than 400 species of birds rely on the Salton Sea to survive. The Salton Sea also provides an essential stop for many migratory birds.

Further, as the Salton banks continue to recede, more than 100,000 acres of lakebed will be exposed to the California air. Silt, fine-grain soil, and salt particles from the lake create toxic dust which degrades the air quality and exacerbates respiratory problems in humans. The asthma rates for children in the areas surrounding the Salton Sea are the highest in the State of California.

Finally, the Salton Sea creates a favorable climate, which allows farmers to grow certain crops in the winter. These crops account for almost 80 percent of the winter crops grown in the United States.

Plans to Mitigate the Harm Caused by Decreasing Water Levels

In 2007, California developed a plan that would cost over $8 billion to implement, but the State has little hope of raising more than $82 million by 2047, which would be too late. As of 2015, it is still unclear as to whether California has a definitive plan to preserve the water levels of the Salton Sea. However, “the Oakland-based Pacific Institute projected that without action to address the Salton Sea’s deterioration, the long-term social and economic costs . . . could range between $29 billion and $70 billion over the next 30 years.”

Because it seems like California will be unable to implement a plan by itself, the IID and other groups are drafting their own plans to preserve the Salton Sea on a smaller scale. The IID is currently working on the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative. Under this initiative, the Salton Lake will decrease to two-thirds its current size and on the dried out shores, IID will build geothermal plants. The purpose of the initiative is to produce renewable geothermal energy using the exposed portions of the lakebed. Further, by developing on the exposed portions of the lakebed, emissions of dust particles into the air will be mitigated. IID aims to produce enough energy through the project to power more than one million homes.

California has yet to approve IID’s plan for the Salton Sea. However, time is running out for the Salton Sea with under three years before IID ceases mitigating water flows.

The title image features pelicans enjoying the Salton Sea and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License. The owner of this image does not endorse this blog.


Background Information on the Salton Sea, Cal. Dep’t of Fish & Wildlife, (last visited Feb. 16, 2015).

Felicity Barringer, Preserving an Accident, the Salton Sea in California, for the Good of Nature, N.Y. Times (Nov. 10, 2014),

Ian James, IID Presses State to Live up to Salton Sea Commitment, Desert Sun (Jan. 21, 2015),

Quantification Settlement Agreement, Water Educ. Found., (last visited Feb. 16, 2015).

Restoring the Salton Sea, Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative, (last visited Feb. 16, 2015).

Ker Than, Can California Farmers Save Water and the Dying Salton Sea?, Nat’l Geographic (Feb. 18, 2014),