But the smell is only one small part of a more serious public-health problem, one that has the potential to affect millions of people in southern California and beyond. The Salton Sea is shrinking, a phenomenon due partially to rapid evaporation—summer temperatures around the lake routinely top 110 degrees—and partially to the decrease in the agricultural runoff that was the lake’s primary water source.
But the window of time to do anything about it—and save the lake from ecological crisis—is rapidly closing.
In the spring of 1905, following extreme rains, the Colorado River flooded and blew out a weakly constructed irrigation canal. All efforts to seal the breach failed—for 18 months, the river continued to flood into the Salton Sink, filling it up with fresh water like an enormous shallow tub. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which had extensive rail interests in the area, jumped in and for two weeks stopped rail traffic in California in order to divert all rolling stock to Salton Sink. Two thousand workers dumped more than 3,000 specially constructed railroad cars full of boulders, wood, and dirt into the flooded canal. The scheme worked: The Colorado River once again resumed its former course into the Sea of Cortez. The lake left behind by the flooding wasn’t deep, but it was enormous, covering nearly a thousand square miles of land. The Salton Sea, as the lake was now called, was more or less left alone for the next several decades; runoff from the Imperial Valley’s huge farm areas offset much of the heavy annual evaporation rate and kept the lake viable.
Unfortunately, little thought and few resources were devoted to the management of this accidental lake. As a terminal lake, the Salton Sea lacks any outflow, and in the late 1970s a series of heavy tropical storms caused the water level to rapidly rise and flood its banks. The surrounding towns and businesses were severely damaged, many beyond repair, and tourism began to shift away. In the 1990s the lake began to recede dramatically, stranding many of the remaining residences and businesses, as changing water-management priorities diverted more water from agricultural areas to cities.
“The trend now is to move water from agricultural to urban areas because that’s where the growing demand is,” says Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the The Pacific Institute, an environmental research organization. “But doing that has huge environmental consequences that now manifest at the Salton Sea.” By the early 2000s, it had become clear that the lake was headed for disaster: The agricultural runoff that sustained the lake contained not only fertilizer and pesticides, but high quantities of salt. Over the years, the salinity rose enough to kill off the lake’s fish species, even salt-water fish. The only survivor was the hardy tilapia, an African freshwater fish that was originally introduced into the canal system to control algae growth. The water-quality concerns and massive fish die-offs further damaged the Salton Sea’s reputation and discouraged tourism or investment.
“Our lifeblood is agriculture,” says Robert Schettler, an Imperial Irrigation District spokesperson. “But we agreed to fallow agricultural land for 15 years to give the state enough time to figure out what to do.”
But the 15 years are nearly over, and thus far, the state has failed to act. At the end of 2017, the flow of water into the lake will be greatly reduced, causing salinity to spike; eventually, even the hardy tilapia will die off, the birds that feed on them will either migrate or die off themselves, and the dust will only get worse.
For a vivid example of the health hazards and environmental costs associated with a dry lake bed, one need only look north of the Salton Sea to Owens Lake. West of the Sierra Mountain Range, this lake was drained in the 1920s to meet the water needs of a growing Los Angeles. The dry lake bed is now the biggest manmade source of hazardous dust in the United States; Los Angeles has spent more than $1.2 billion dollars trying to suppress the dust, pouring 30 billion gallons of water onto the lake bed each year, but air-quality problems remain. Hazardous dust levels around the lake bed are 10 times the acceptable standard.
But nearly all the solutions that have been proposed have one thing in common: an unrealistically high price tag. The state issued a $9 billion plan in 2007, for example, that failed to gain any traction—possibly because Imperial County, one of the poorest counties in California, has relatively little political muscle. “If the Salton Sea was next to Sacramento, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, the problems would have been fixed a long time ago,” Cohen says.
The long-term price of inaction, though, is staggering. It’s challenging to put a dollar amount on the loss of a vital bird sanctuary or the loss of a recreational lake, but the human-health costs of a dead, shrunken Salton Sea are enormous. Some voice concern that a severe wind event might spread the lake’s hazardous dust towards the heavily populated coastal cities or even as far as Arizona, affecting millions. Windblown dust and salt could also take a heavy toll on the area’s agribusinesses, financially harming even more people.
One more recent idea that seems to be gaining popularity is a canal or pipeline that would link the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to the Salton Sea, pumping in water to re-cover the exposed playa. But some, including Cohen, are skeptical of the idea, citing the great distance a pipeline would need to cross (over 160 miles), the need for an agreement with Mexico, and the high price tag. It would also take years to to negotiate, fund, and build such an ambitious project—and perhaps the biggest challenge in saving the Salton Sea is that time is no longer an available luxury. “The Salton Sea is in bad shape now, but in 2018 it’s going to get much worse, very rapidly,” Cohen says.
But the proposal, which calls for geothermal-power development to help fund the ongoing restoration of the Salton Sea, would also signal the end of the lake as it’s been known for the past several decades. There’s currently one geothermal power plant on the lake, but its energy is sold to Arizona; if produced for California residents, geothermal energy could help address the state’s long-term goals of greatly increasing renewable-energy resources. The resulting Salton Sea would be an entirely different entity, with little or no resemblance to its past life as a fishing and tourist mecca.
“There were a lot of people who wanted to see the Salton Sea returned to the way it was in the 1950s,” Wilcox says, but “that’s just not possible. You can’t have that kind of lake [anymore].”
“We were all waiting for that perfect solution,” he adds, “and most of us have realized there isn’t a perfect solution.” And in the meantime, the clock is ticking.