The Salton Sea: Restoring California’s Dying Sea

Often referred to as the “accidental lake,” the Salton Sea formed in the early twentieth century when heavy rain and snowfall caused a diversion in the Colorado River to burst and pour out into a dried up lakebed in the California desert. The Salton Sea is a terminal lake with no outlets and very little inflow of water, and it depends of agricultural runoff from the Imperial and Coachella valleys. As a result, the Salton Sea is ridden with pesticides, fertilizers, and salinity levels fifty percent greater than that of the Pacific Ocean.

Current State

Since the 1990s the Salton Sea has receded dramatically, driving out most remaining residents, businesses, as well as its wildlife.  In the late 1990s, and also to a lesser extent in 2006, the low water levels and lack of oxygen in the lake caused some ten million Tilapia to suffocate and wash up on shore.

As the Salton Sea’s shoreline continues to recede, hundreds of acres of foul-smelling, dry, chemically ridden lakebed is exposed. When kicked up by desert winds, the lakebed has the potential to cause hazardous dust storms, raising serious environmental and public health concerns. Furthermore, public health officials are concerned that because of the high levels of pesticides and fertilizers in the water, the dust may contain toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic. The high levels of dust released from the dried-up lakebed are inhaled by the 650,000 residents of the surrounding area.  Consequently, Imperial County currently has the highest asthma-related hospitalization rates in California.

The lake’s receding waters and hazardous dust storms are not only posing serious public health issues, but also a number of environmental concerns.  The Salton Sea, at forty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide, is California’s largest lake and one of the few remaining waterways in Southern California, and therefore serves as an important migration point for more than four hundred species of birds each year. Although there are varying opinions on the matter, most stakeholders agree that allowing the lake to dry up will have devastating effects on surrounding areas.

What Next?

The Salton Sea’s bleak conditions are only expected to worsen as even less water becomes available to maintain the lake.  In 2003, California implemented the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which re-apportioned water from the Colorado River to be distributed to urban areas and divert water away from the Salton Sea.  In response to concerns that the condition of the lake would worsen without an inflow of water, the Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) agreed to send “mitigation water” to the sea until 2018.  Mitigation water is collected by asking farmers to fallow their land in exchange for a monetary pay out.  Being that this is only a temporary fix, under the agreement, the state is required to have a large-scale restoration effort ready to be set in motion by 2018.

As 2018 and the end of the supply of mitigation water approaches, the state and federal governments have begun to address the future of the Salton Sea.  This past July, Governor Jerry Brown announced an $80.5 million plan to work with the IID to build canals and artificial wetlands along the lake’s continuously receding shoreline.  Additionally, this past September, the Obama Administration budgeted $30 million to further expedite California’s habitat and dust suppression projects, improving air and water quality, and restoring fish and wildlife habitat.  Currently, the state is drafting a more comprehensive Salton Sea Management Plan, estimated at upwards of three billion dollars, which is scheduled for release by the end of 2016.

IID’s plan to salvage the Salton Sea proposes creating a smaller but more sustainable version of its former self that will still be able to serve the needs of its wildlife and surrounding communities.  The plan focuses on five specific goals: ensuring water supply reliability, protecting public health, developing carbon-free energy, protecting and restoring the sea’s ecosystem, and providing for economic growth.  IID Program manager, Bruce Wilcox states that, “a reconfigured sea will limit fugitive dust emissions, preserve and create avian habitat and expand economic opportunity for one of California’s most economically distressed areas.”

Currently, construction has begun on an experimental portion of artificial habitat of the Salton Sea. Small sections that are completely isolated from the rest of the lake are pumped with fresh water and then filled with new fish.  With the ability to move water in and out of these habitats, scientists hope that some of the lake’s stagnation and hyper-salinity issues will be resolved. These shoreline pools and shallow water habitats serve not only to restore the sea’s ecosystem, but also to reduce the formation of hazardous dust storms.

In regards to controlling the hazardous dust storms in the area, the IID’s plan focuses on covering exposed lakebed through the creation of shoreline pools and artificial habitats. Additionally, thanks to a two million dollar grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, new air monitoring devices will be installed in the area to measure the amount of hazardous particles in the air.  These air monitoring devices will not only notify residents when they need to take extra precautions, but will also provide data that can help bring public awareness to the seriousness risk posed by airborne dust in the area.

Funding the Plan: Geothermal Potential

In addition to state and federal funding, local officials hope that they could tap in to the Salton Sea’s geothermal potential in order to secure much of the funding necessary. Despite being the largest geothermal reservoir in the United States, there are only eleven existing geothermal plants in the area. Although there are proposed plans to build large-scale geothermal plants on the dried up lakebed, construction of theses plants is very costly, which has prevented development in the past.  Most recently, Controlled Thermal Resources has proposed a plan to build a 250-megawatt geothermal plant on the Salton Sea’s southern shore. In their recent studies, the IID projected that the new geothermal developments could generate up to two billion dollars total, some of which would go towards Salton Sea restoration efforts. However, research done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts much smaller numbers, somewhere between $98 million and $210 million.


The proposed visions for the future of Salton Sea are far from the dynamic place it once was.  However, in its current, toxic condition, it poses serious health concerns to surrounding citizens; and as water levels continue to fall, it threatens California’s ecosystems that rely on clean water for survival.  Future restoration projects will be designed with this in mind, and will focus on long-term solutions to fix the Salton Sea’s catastrophic problems.  Although not ideal, the varying proposals are realistic and, if successful, the restoration of Salton Sea will help alleviate many environmental and public health concerns that currently plague the area.

Alicia Garcia

Image: Dead trees in the Salton Sea, California. Flickr User Phil Price, Creative Commons.



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