The Salton Sea is shrinking, and without a restoration project it will transform from California’s largest lake into an economic, health, and environmental hazard.
Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District has been in a long-running legal battle and litigation over the Salton Sea water transfer deal and its effects on the shrinking Sea.
The case stems from the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history. Under that deal, increasing amounts of water are to be transferred from the farmland of the Imperial Valley to urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.
The Imperial Irrigation District deal and its effects on the shrinking Sea.
The declining Salton Sea imposes massive public health and environmental costs on local residents and Californians. The continued failure to protect and preserve the Salton Sea, worsening air quality and the loss of valuable ecological habitat – combined with diminished recreational revenue and property devaluation – could cost as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years.
The high costs of California’s plan for the Salton Sea have inhibited deliberation and deterred any meaningful investment in revitalizing the Salton Sea. Many decision-makers assume that delaying action at the Salton Sea will result in business as usual, with no additional costs.
The Hazard’s Toll report makes clear that this is not the case. Because the Salton Sea has changed over the past decade and will soon enter a period of very rapid decline, the costs of inaction are escalating rapidly.
The consequences of continued inaction at the Salton Sea will be felt most directly by the 650,000 people who live in harm’s way of the Salton Sea’s toxic dust, as well as by the birds and other life that depend on the lake.
“Exposing 134 square miles of lake-bed to desert winds could kick up an average of 86 tons per day of talcum powder-like dust into the region’s air,” said HAZARD co-author Karen Hyun. “This dust is a respiratory irritant, and Imperial County is already home to the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in California.”
“It may be creating a problem Southern California cannot live with,” said Phil Meyer, former consultant to the Salton Sea Task Force, a coalition of government agencies dedicated to finding ways to cleanse the sea.
Salton Sea mud contains enough arsenic and selenium to qualify for disposal in a dump reserved for the most toxic of society’s trash. Chromium, zinc, lead and pesticides, including DDT, are also in the lake bottom.
These chemicals can attach themselves to the fine particles of sediment while the lake evaporates and will be breathed by people…It will be a catastrophic health hazard!
Dried up lakes can be enormous polluters.
The highest amount of tiny, airborne particles recorded in the Western Hemisphere occurred at Keeler, Calif., on Feb. 3, 1989. Wind-driven dust from the desiccated Owens Valley lake-bed pushed particle concentrations to 1,861 micrograms per cubic meter — 12 times greater than the federal health-based limit. Five percent of all the particle pollution in North America comes from the Owens Lake bed.
The once prosperous mining towns and ranches of Mono Lake have all dried up. Many ranchers sold their land and water rights to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and moved. The LADWP contracted to build a system of diversion dams to ship the water south. The project was completed in 1941, and virtually all the water destined for Mono Lake was piped to southern California. Without the annual inflow of fresh water, the lake began to dry up. The city of Los Angeles is the largest landowner in the area.
In addition to the changes to the lake populations, the lower water level caused other problems. As water evaporated, the lake shrank exposing a layer of alkaline salts. High winds stir up these salts and create toxic dust storms. These dust storms are a health hazard for everyone living in the Mono Lake basin. Changes to the lake were dramatic. Without a freshwater source the salinity of the lake doubled. By 1995 the water level had dropped over 45 feet.
“Arsenic in dust blown from the shores of shrinking Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada poses a cancer risk of 1 in 10,000 — 100 times more dangerous than the toxic emissions from a large factory. Arsenic is a byproduct of volcanic activity in the area,” said Tom Gill, geochemist for the air quality branch of the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.
Dust from the banks of the disappearing Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union is one of the world’s great environmental health hazards.
Once the fourth largest lake in the world, massive river diversions have shrunk the Aral Sea by 40 percent, exposing about 11,000 square miles of lake bottom. The intentional shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is considered one of the most dramatic examples of a natural area destroyed by human activities. The Aral Sea has become a symbol of what can go wrong when transboundary water is mismanaged.
About 40 million tons of dust, salts, pesticides and hydrocarbons are swept up by dust storms annually, with consequences for the 5 million people living around it, including 1.5 million children. Diseases are increasing causing anemia, tuberculosis, kidney and liver diseases, respiratory
infections, allergies, mouth and respiratory cancers among the millions of people living near the sea.
“There’s no reason to believe it couldn’t or wouldn’t happen at the Salton Sea,” Gill said.
According to the report, the Salton Sea’s surface elevation will drop by more than five feet in just the next 12 years. In 2018, due to the 2003 water-transfer agreements and changes in Mexico, inflows to the Sea will decrease dramatically, causing the Sea to reach a critical tipping point. Among the devastating changes:
- Between 2018 and 2030, the Sea will drop an additional 20 feet;
- By 2021, rising lake salinity will mean the loss of nearly all fish life. Tens of thousands of resident and migratory birds will lose breeding and roosting habitats and food sources;
- By 2036, the southern shore will have receded 4 to 5 miles, and the shrinking Sea will expose more than 130 square miles of dusty lake-bed to the desert winds—an area nearly three times the size of San Francisco;
- In 60 years, the Sea will be little more than a shallow algal/bacterial soup.
According to Julia Levin, State Policy Director for Audubon California, the impact on fish and birds will be staggering. “This analysis demonstrates that we must do something to protect the Salton Sea,” she said. “Without restoration, we will lose almost all fish life and tens of thousands of resident and migratory birds.”
“California has a clear choice: do nothing for the Sea now and suffer the consequences, or fund a restoration project that protects the ecosystem and promotes economic development,” said Cohen.
The report also highlights a large number of important data gaps that should be addressed in the near future. Despite many decades of study and the impending decline of the Salton Sea, we still lack information on many factors affecting life and the economy in the region. These factors, combined with general uncertainty about population growth rates, climate change, and changing hydrologic conditions, suggest that the above estimates indicate a general magnitude of potential future costs, rather than precise projections.
“Failing to act on behalf of the Salton Sea will have dire consequences,” said Michael J. Cohen, lead author of Hazard. “California must implement a restoration plan to combat the future problems of a shrinking Sea. Failure to do so will mean nothing less than disaster for the health of the region’s inhabitants, wildlife, and growing economy,” Cohen said.
Hazard’s Toll is a companion volume to Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project. The 2006 volume contains information on the formation, ecological processes, and hydrology of the Salton Sea, as well as an assessment of the potential ecological impacts of the Sea’s current decline.
The Pacific Institute is dedicated to protecting the natural world, encouraging sustainable development, and improving global security. Founded in 1987 and based in downtown Oakland, the Institute provides independent research and policy analysis on issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security.
Download the full report:
Read/listen to interviews with Michael Cohen:
KPBS: Cost Of Doing Nothing At The Salton Sea May Be Higher Than Cost Of Repair
KPPC: Failure to Restore Salton Sea Could Cost the State Billions
KCRW: Salton Sea Study (Segment starts at 20’43”)