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The Salton Sea: California’s Overlooked Treasure

The story of the Salton begins with the formation of a great shallow depression, or basin which modem explorers have called the Salton Sink. Several million years ago a long arm of the Pacific Ocean extended from the Gulf of California though the present Imperial and Coachella valleys, then northwesterly through the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Mountain ranges rose on either side of this great inland sea, and the whole area came up out of the water. Oyster beds in the San Felipe Mountains, on the west side of Imperial Valley are located many hundreds of feet above present sea level. Slowly the land in the central portion settled, and the area south of San Gorgonio Pass sloped gradually down to the Gulf.

If it had not been affected by external forces, it would probably have kept its original contours, but it just so happened that on its eastern side there emptied one of the mightiest rivers of the North American continent the Colorado. The river built a delta across the upper part of the Gulf, turning that area into a great salt water lake. It covered almost 2100 square miles.

How could a river cut a gulf in two? The watershed of the Colorado River covers 260,000 square miles, from the southern edge of Yellowstone Park to the Gulf of California. It held in suspension and carried down to the sea millions of tons of solid matter as it scoured out such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon. It deposited this vast quantity of silt into the Gulf opposite its mouth and the deposits eventually reached clear to the opposite side, from Yuma to the rampart of the Cocopah Mountains. The delta was ten miles wide by thirty in length. The river then chose for itself a route on the southeastern slide of the delta plain, discharging its waters into the Gulf of California. Under the blazing sun, water in the upper Gulf evaporated, leaving an and basin incrusted with salt in its deeper parts. The depression was about one hundred miles in length by thirty-five in width. It had a maximum depth of 1,000 feet.

The Salton Sea

Federal leaders, including U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Anne Castle, will gather at the Salton Sea on Friday for a daylong meeting on its restoration.

The event is hosted by Rep. Raul Ruiz in conjunction with the office of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Both Democrats live in the Coachella Valley.

Local stakeholders and representatives from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein‘s office also are expected to attend, according to Ruiz’s office.

ISUN IN-DEPTH: Saving the Salton Sea

This comes just four months after then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the dying sea with a who’s who of local leadership.

“Restoring the sea is critical to the health and well-being of our community and the economic and environmental security of our region,” Ruiz, a Palm Desert Democrat, said at the time.

State, local and federal leaders have long debated how to save California’s largest lake, only to table the plans because of the huge costs associated with the project.

The issue has become more pressing because of a massive water transfer that’s scheduled in 2017. Experts say the transfer will shrink the sea, expose potentially hazardous lake bed and cause widespread air quality and environmental woes.

California state leaders have, in recent years, been tapped to lead the restoration. But a $9 billion fix unveiled in 2007 never got the Legislature’s endorsement or funding.

Others have argued that the federal government should take over the project.

Friday’s event will start at 9 a.m. at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Officials say the public can participate through a YouTube livestream.

Dried Salton Sea Could Produce ‘Clouds Of Toxic Dust’ under San Diego Water Authority

A Southern California oasis turned into a desert. Before long the Salton Sea may be gone for good. And its demise might also pose health and environmental risks for residents and wildlife.

In March, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported a decision by California’s state Supreme Court to uphold a 2003 water transfer deal that could spell doom for the troubled lake, the state’s largest. According to the Union-Tribune, several parties have challenged the deal, citing the potential negative effects on the region’s environment.

The 2003 plan, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, is “the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the history of the United States,” according to KQED, and calls for the diversion of up to 200,000 acre-feet of water from Imperial Irrigation District farmland to San Diego County. One acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, “enough to supply two single-family households of four for a year,” according to San Diego County Water Authority literature.

The SDCWA plan would reduce statewide dependence on the Colorado River as an aquifer, but since “the only water the Sea receives is agricultural run-off from nearby farms the diversion could drain the Salton Sea in a matter of years.

That drying could release harmful elements like Selenium and arsenic from the lake bed, which could spread clouds of toxic dust across southern California.

In fact, according to the California Audobon Society, this is already happening.

“As water has been siphoned off or agricultural and urban use, dust emissions have increasingly threatened public health,” the California Audubon Society website states.

Halla Razak, Colorado River Program Director for the SDCWA disputes the notion that the QSA plan will lead to a dry lakebed.  Razak said that that the QSA “fully mitigates” any water diverted from the Salton Sea by the Imperial Irrigation District.

According to Razak, this is accomplished through a system of voluntary fallowing, in which area farmers are offered money by the Imperial Irrigation District — approximately $125 an acre — to leave their fields fallow and have their irrigation shut off for a set amount of time. The money comes out of the yearly amount paid to the District by the SDCWA for water.

“Some of the water that is conserved [in this manner] goes to San Diego, and some of it goes to the [Salton] Sea,” Razak said.

Yet, since the Irrigation District must solicit contracts from farmers, there’s no hard guarantee that water would be conserved. If for some reason the district’s offer were not lucrative enough, farmers could decide to proceed with planting.

Created by a 1905 flood that spilled into the area, the Salton Sea rose to prominence as a resort town in the 1950s — a waterpark playground in the desert. But increasing salinity from agricultural irrigation soon shattered the illusion. Sport fish died, money pulled out, and abandoned resorts, now ruins, line the edge of the lake.

But despite its salinity, the lake has become an important pit stop for migrating birds. If the Salton Sea dries up, those flocks will lose one of the few waterways in southern California on their migration route, and may even become extinct, compounding the effects of recent die-offs of bird species like white pelicans and other waterbirds.

Colorado River Water Transfer Agreements

Water Transfer

A critical component of the 2003 Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement was the Water Transfer Agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority. The transfer agreement established that, through a combination of land fallowing and efficiency based water conservation measures, the San Diego region would receive up to 200,000 acre feet of water per year for up to 75 years. The water transfer is considered the cornerstone of the broader QSA plan to reduce California’s use of Colorado River water to its basic annual apportionment of 4.4 million acre feet. Now in its eleventh year of implementation, 100,000 acre-feet of water is scheduled to be transferred to the Water Authority in 2013. The transfer schedule will ramp up to 200,000 acre feet by 2021.

The QSA, signed Oct. 10, 2003 by the Water Authority, IID, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Coachella Valley Water District, the California State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Department of Interior, also included projects to conserve water from lining portions of the All-American and Coachella canals. The Water Authority served as the project manager on both canal lining projects, which are now complete and producing 77,700 acre feet of conserved water per year for the Water authority.

Water Authority-IID Water Transfer

Term: The initial term of the Water Authority-IID Water Transfer Agreement is 45 years. If both parties agree, the agreement can be renewed for an additional 30 years. The Water Authority may elect to terminate the agreement after 35 years. In the event of a non-renewal, each party has a right of first refusal on transfers for a period of 15 years following the initial term.

Conservation method: IID is responsible for determining how to produce the conserved water, except that fallowing will only be a permitted method of saving water during the initial 15 years. IID, in developing its conservation measures for the period when the fallowing program ends, is moving forward with a plan that calls for a combination of system conservation and on-farm conservation. In 2010, the Water Authority provided IID $50 million to assist in these efforts, which IID will use for the exclusive purpose of constructing system-conservation capital improvement projects. Between 2003 and 2017, the Water Authority is also providing $30 million to IID to help diversify the Imperial Valley economy and mitigate the socioeconomic impacts from the water transfer.

Restoring California’s Water Supply Reliability

Quantity: The delivery quantity increases according to a schedule until reaching 200,000 acre-feet in 2021.

Delivery: MWD takes delivery of transfer water via the Colorado River Aqueduct and delivers to the Water Authority a like quantity and quality of water in exchange.

Price: The price paid to IID for conserved water in 2013 is $540 per acre-foot. This

amount will increase each year according to a set schedule until 2015. For 2016 through 2034, the price per acre-foot will be based on the annual increase in the Gross Domestic Product Implicit Price Deflator as published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the United States Department of Commerce applied to the prior year price per acre-foot. Beginning in 2035, either the Water Authority or IID can, if certain criteria are met, elect a market price through a formula described in the water transfer agreement. In addition, a shortage premium price can be imposed, under certain conditions, after year 2035.



The transfers are key components of the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement, which allows California to implement measures to reduce California’s overdependence on Colorado River water.

Southern California

The transfers provide water to replace Colorado River water that is lost to the region as California complies with the mandate to live within its basic Colorado River annual apportionment of 4.4 million acre-feet.

For many years, more than half the water the Metropolitan Water District (wholesale supplier to urban Southern California water agencies) received from the Colorado River was a surplus supply. With the execution of the QSA, Southern California will gradually wean itself of its overdependence on the Colorado River surplus water.

San Diego County

San Diego County has gained a vast, new and highly reliable water supply that helps to diversify and ensure the reliability of the region’s supply for generations to come. The transfers protect against shortages and stabilize the price of a significant portion of the Water Authority’s overall supplies.

Imperial Valley

The Imperial Valley protects its historic water rights. The transfer funds help pay the costs of the conservation program and environmental mitigation. Moreover, funding will help the Imperial Valley diversify its economy.


The Water Authority- IID Water Transfer provides benefits to San Diego and Imperial counties and, indeed, the entire state of California. The All-American and Coachella canal lining projects also provide a reliable new long-term supply of water.

These programs are key to the QSA.

The barren earth and dead trees reveal the blight of the Salton Sea, where water conservation efforts are attempting to restore the once natural playground and tourist site in California.

Water Authority

Potential Impacts to Salton Sea of Water Transfers

Report to the California Legislature
on the
Current Condition of the Salton Sea
and the
Potential Impacts of Water Transfers 


icon_pdf.pngQSA Joint Powers Authority Fiscal Year 2011 Budget

icon_pdf.pngColorado River Transfer Agreement Fact Sheet


Formation of the Contemporary Sea
• Agriculture
• Salton Sea State Recreation Area
• National Wildlife Refuge
• Imperial State Wildlife Area
• Economics
• Water Quality
Inflow to the Sea
• Surface Inflow
• Precipitation
• Groundwater
• Geothermal Resources
Level Fluctuations
Saltinity of the Sea
• Quality of Inflow
• Sensitivity to Salinity
Wildlife Habitat
Water Conservation Measures
• State Water Resources Control Board Requirements
• IID/MWD Water Conservation Agreement and Approval ….Agreement Provisions
• Potential and Plans for Additional Conservation
Effects of Water Conservation Measures
• Effects Related to Elevation and Salinity Changes
• Effects Related to Reduction of Water Shortfalls and ….Increased Economic Stimulus

Although dust and salt have been seen blowing off of recently exposed land, the percentage of exposed land that will generate dust during the region’s frequent wind storms has not been quantified. If an estimated 40% of these lands generate dust, an average of 17 tons of fine dust could be added each day to the basin’s already poor-quality air within 11 years.

Winds blow throughout the Salton Sea basin, generating large dust storms that harm human health. Air quality in both the Coachella and Imperial valleys already fails to meet state and federal standards. Childhood asthma hospitalization rates in Imperial County are the highest in California, and three times the state’s average.

Exposing 134 square miles of salty lake bed could increase the amount of blowing dust in the basin by a third, harming tens of thousands of children, the elderly, and others with breathing problems.

The local $1.5 billion agricultural economy will suffer from the blowing dust and sand as well.

Most people don’t understand how and why fish die-offs and algae blooms happen, and one important clarification I learned from both the Salton Sea Authority members and the director of the Salton Sea Interpretive Association was that they aren’t caused by pollution. Here’s a fact sheet that sets the story straight. (As an author of Oakland guidebooks, I am used to dealing with misinformation and bad PR, but this is far more intense.)

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Alright, if you have any interest whatsoever so far in the Salton Sea, you MUST watch this movie. If you don’t, watch it anyway. The movie is called “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea” and was made in 2004.  I loved this film because along with providing an easy to understand breakdown of the ecological problems of the sea, it showed the declining Sea’s effects on the residents of its shores.

In the first minute of the movie, the narrator brings us to a “beautifully awful paradise…where utopia and the apocalypse meet to dance a dirty tango.” Then the viewer hears soundclips for residents explaining that the Salton Sea is “California’s version of the French Riviera…a place for recreation and fishing,” while the camera quite ironically pans over shots of abandoned homes and boats as well as shorelines full of dead fish.

The movie gives a great sense of the former glory of the Sea, and how many residents so desperately believe that it will someday return. The Salton Sea had potential, and those who ended up staying there were likely those who believed in it the most. Many were attracted by the cheap land prices of the abandoned housing developments in the 70s and 80s. land there is so cheap that many people can’t sell there house and afford anywhere else. That, or they eagerly buy up more land waiting for the day when value will skyrocket.


Vanishing Oasis of California’s Salton Sea

Understand that it is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the region surrounding the Salton Sea – a multi-billion-a-year tourist industry and some 70-plus percent of produce farming for many crops – is dependent on the Salton Sea. (Higher for some crops like dates, table grapes, sugar beets, sugar cane, and tomatoes…) Almost every species of bird that nests in North America visits the Salton Sea and relies on it for food and nesting. The impact is coming quickly and is really unimaginable. Let’s give the sea the attention it deserves in the hopes that a plan can quickly be enacted to retain as much watery habitat as is possible.

Videos and Links.

If you search for videos online you’re likely to find footage of the fish die-offs or a mock travel guide underscoring how dilapidated the area has become.

This video is the only one I’ve found that is useful for information and to picture the history and creation of the sea. I strongly suggest watching it if only to get a grasp on the story.

Here’s one more video of accumulated news clips from a few years ago when Ducheny almost got the multi-billion dollar bill through the state senate that would have enacted a restoration plan to ensure wetland habitat and some form of the Salton Sea for the future. It did not pass. The goal is still the same – come to an agreement as quickly as possible and start constructing a managed Salton Sea area. This would keep people living and working in the communities there, farming, making energy (solar, geo-thermal, even drilling), and perhaps most importantly (humans have places to go, animals have fewer choices) the habitat would be there for the Pacific Flyway to remain connected.

The consequences of the lake disappearing have also been dramatized by the History Channel (in this video) – big surprise. It does, however, give a picture of the very real outlook for Palm Springs and those tourist towns if they don’t also become a part of advocating for the sea. A polluted dust bowl is hardly a preference over making a few sacrifices now to save the sea.

It is such a complex situation and no one perspective can give a complete picture, the best way to experience the sea is to go there. I strongly encourage people to visit, despite any misgivings. I am so moved by the saga. I am certain the trip will be worth your while. You can easily base yourself in Indio (as we did – it was too hot to camp for us) or Palm Springs, Salton Sea is also very near to Joshua Tree Park.

Travelers will also marvel at Chiriaco Summit – the largest privately-owned and operated travel info center in the U.S. It’s incredible. I even found there the latest visitor’s guide to Oakland, in addition to pamphlets and maps and attractions for every possible direction out. The place has its own charming story about the namesake couple.

Birds of the Salton Sea, a USGS checklist for the area (yes, two types of flamingos come here, I didn’t make that up)