The largest inland body of water in California is shrinking and sending out an SOS signal in the form of increased salinity and piles of dead birds and fish. The lake occupies a desert basin known as the Salton Sink. This body of water covers a surface area of 376 square miles. The Salton Sink has been a sea and a dry sea bed over its historical evolutions. But never before within human existence have so little other wetlands been available to migratory birds and other wetland-dependent species. Humans have drained wetlands to make the land suitable for development and agriculture.
This desert lake receives inflow of water mainly from agricultural run-off. Lake levels are expected to drop levels by over 16 feet, exposing almost 70 square miles of sediments. The result could be potential air quality problems caused by blowing dust.
If the Sea is not restored, salinity and nutrient levels will increase, shoreline elevations will drop, fish will die, odors will likely increase, residents and visitors to the Sea will decline, air quality problems may develop, and populations of fish-eating birds such as pelicans and many other birds will be severely impacted.
Without a restoration project, California’s largest lake will become an economic, health, and environmental hazard. Details about these projections are available in a report by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think-tank.
“Failing to act on behalf of the Salton Sea will have dire consequences,” said Michael J. Cohen, lead author of HAZARD: The Future of the Salton Sea with No Restoration Project.
Species depend on Salton Sea
The sea supports the endangered brown pelican, more than 90 percent of the North American population of eared grebes, and more than 80 percent of American white pelicans. There are more than 50 species of special status birds (threatened, endangered, or species of concern) at the sea and its environs. The sea and surrounding farmlands are a birders’ paradise, especially during the winter/early spring peak migration season. With some 97 percent of California’s historical wetlands having been converted to other land uses, remaining avian rest stops like the Salton Sea are crucial to migratory birds.
This abundance of wildlife visiting and living in the Salton Sea region is particularly critical given the decline of wetlands. Over 90 percent of the wetlands of California have been lost. As California’s wetlands decline, the importance of the Sea as a habitat for inland wetland species increases. The Sea’s habitats support up to 40 percent of the entire US population of the threatened Yuma clapper rail, 80 to 90 percent of the American white pelican, and 90 percent of the eared grebe.
Salton Sea as a recreation center
Besides the opportunity for bird watching and for fishing, the Salton Sea and its immediate vicinity offer recreational opportunities including boating, camping, off-roading, hiking, hunting, use of personal watercraft and photography. One of the attractions, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, has 1,400 campsites in five campgrounds, hundreds of picnic sites, trails, playgrounds, boat ramps and a visitors’ center.
Who will save the Salton Sea?
The public coffers have little budgetary wiggle room to support a nine-billion dollar restoration project. The Salton Sea Authority, a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) has spear –headed the vision of the revitalization of the Salton Sea. However sea levels continue to drop. The Authority is comprised of cooperating agencies: The Coachella Valley Water District, The Imperial Irrigation District, Riverside County, Imperial County and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. A number of federal, state, and tribal agencies are ex-officio members of the Authority. Alternatives for maintaining the entire sea at near-present salinity levels were evaluated after the federal Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998. None of these alternatives were implemented
- Salton Sea Authority
- The Future of the Salton Sea
- History of the Salton Sea