A Whiff of the Future
A heinous rotten-egg smell settled into the surrounding areas of San Diego and Los Angelos, a stench more familiar to residents lining the Salton Sea, some 150 miles to the east. It was this 376-square-mile body of water, created by accident in the middle of the desert over a century ago, that belched up the fetid cloud. And such episodes will continue to plague Southern California as the collapse of the Salton Sea ecosystem accelerates over the coming years.
Considered to be among the world’s most vital avian habitats and — until recently — one of its most productive fisheries, the Salton Sea is in a state of wild flux, the scene of fish and bird die-offs of unfathomable proportions. It was the resulting sea-bottom biomass that storms churned, releasing gases.
This episode in the Salton Sea’s long, painful history of sickness and health and booms and busts — a stinky side effect of a great American experiment to civilize the western deserts. By economic measurements, this experiment has been an (supposed) astounding success. By environmental measurements, it’s shaping up to be pure disaster.
These days, in the 115-degree heat of summer the Sea stinks so bad that the reek sticks in your throat like Elmer’s Glue. Chemical-laced dust kicked up from its rapidly receding shoreline contributes to an asthma rate for local children three times higher than the state average. It’s been variously called a natural wonder, a national embarrassment, paradise, and the ecological equivalent of the Chernobyl disaster.
The saga of the Sea is one of tangled government agencies, farmers whose crops cradle its shores, local Native American tribes, legislators, environmentalists, and private water utilities. It’s about politics, ecological frontiers, brutal ironies, and historical wounds still smarting. But more than anything else, it’s about water: those who get it, those who don’t, and those who outright loot it. The Salton Sea is the latest battle in the American water wars, and without drastic action, in a matter of years it will fall — and bring Southern California down with it.
A Cranky Sea With an Image Problem
In the ‘90s, Steve Horvitz, then Superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, would watch as masses of dying fish struggled up to his beaches. Now, retired to a small Northern California town, he watches golfers struggle up to the green that abuts his backyard. Charismatic, sharp, and highly defensive of the Salton Sea’s ills, for a decade Horvitz acted as its de facto representative, battling bad press, bad politics, and outright lies — foremost among them: The Salton Sea is dead and gone.
Steve Horvitz, former Superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, at his home in Benbow, California.
With no outlets and very little inflow, the Salton Sea, which formed in the early 20th century when engineers flubbed a diversion of the Colorado River, is essentially a giant evaporation pond. What little water does flow into the Sea is highly salty agricultural runoff, so when the desert sun steals the pure water vapor it leaves behind the salt, which accumulates year over year. Currently the Salton Sea is nearly 50 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and getting more and more salty by the day. Tilapia still survive in these conditions, numbering some 400 million, but the Sea can no longer support the wide variety of sport fish that once flourished here.
The stresses on the tilapia are year-round. In the winter, plummeting water temperatures send them belly-up. In the summer, the fish will often suffocate, as both heat and salt prevent oxygen from dissolving in the water. The summer sun, paired with the nourishment of fertilizers in the runoff, cues massive blooms of algae that spread shore to shore. When this algae dies, the bacteria that feeds on it consumes what little oxygen there is left in the Sea. Tilapia caught in these miles-wide blooms haven’t the slightest chance of escape.
Indeed, this is the most cruel of the Sea’s ironies. To see the rafts of rotting fish and deem the Salton Sea dead, while logical at face value, is to misjudge an absurdly productive body of water. The carcasses add to the nutrient load, jumpstarting a lifecycle that is truly astonishing in its productivity.
Above the surface gathers a remarkable array of birds, fully two-thirds of the species observed in the United States. In a state that has destroyed over 90 percent of its wetlands, the Salton Sea serves as an invaluable stopover in the Pacific Flyway migratory route, which stretches from western Mexico up through Canada.
But in the Sea’s churning ecosystem, botulism spreads quickly among the tilapia, which are eaten by the birds. Department of Fish and Game officials will find birds out on the water, dead or dying, and scoop them up and take them to either a rehab facility or the Sea’s lone and vexingly tiny incinerator.
The ‘90s saw the worst of such die-offs, including a four-month apocalypse in 1996 that killed 14,000 birds, nearly 10,000 of which were massive pelicans whose carcasses workers burned 24 hours a day for weeks on end. As if picking up the scent, news vans poured into the Salton Sea State Recreation Area that summer, churning out images without context, and today the Sea is widely characterized as toxic, a fetid swamp not worth saving.
Such episodes, though, are entirely natural. The Salton Sea just presents them on a disquieting scale.
Recreation at the Salton Sea boomed in the ’50s and ’60s, before being wiped out by two tropical storms in the late ’70s. Photo: Courtesy Salton Sea History Museum
Chief among those allies was Sonny Bono. Elected to the House of Representatives halfway through Horvitz’s tenure as superintendent, Bono set out to restore the lake where he and his family had lounged during the boom times. He set up committees and drafted legislation, even flying out fellow legislators from Washington, D.C., including Newt Gingrich.
It was an epic political gamble: risk cementing the Sea’s reputation as toxic in the hopes of securing funding for its restoration. And it might have worked, but in 1998 the Salton Sea’s well-meaning advocate died in a skiing accident. To the surprise of no one, Bono’s fellow Republicans let the restoration of the Salton Sea flounder, until the political vortex of 9/11 damned the Salton Sea once again to total obscurity.
The Sea lost another advocate when personal reasons forced Horvitz to transfer later that year up to the redwood forests of Northern California.
Now the Sea lies in watery limbo: far from the paradise it once was, but not yet in total collapse. Enormously expensive fixes are laughed out of Sacramento, which has enough problems keeping schools open. Countless solutions, both for full and partial restorations, still bounce around the Imperial Valley. Huge desalination plants along the Sea’s shorelines; two pipelines down to the Gulf of California to ferry bad water out and good water in; construction of berms to cut the Sea down to a more manageable size. Each has a dedicated league of supporters — and an even more dedicated league of opponents.
Whatever the fix, it will require water, and the solution will mean dueling with San Diego and Los Angeles for every drop. It’s a battle for which the Salton Sea is woefully equipped.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, which was forced to move its lines several times as the Sea expanded, eventually stepped in to tame the raging Colorado River. Photo: Salton Sea History Museum
The Bastard Sea Is Born
The California Development Company was formed at the turn of the 20th century to divert Colorado River irrigation water to the perennially sunny Imperial Valley. The CDC hastily dug an enormous network of canals, but forgot to account for silt buildup. The silt clogged the canals, farmers complained and threatened suit, and the CDC had no choice but to make a new cut in the river.
Workers had barely laid down their shovels when the Colorado sent an unprecedented series of floods through the diversion, which didn’t have a single gate to control the flow of water, and into the Salton Basin.
The CDC’s management was just about as competent as its original engineers, so attempt after attempt to seal the break failed. Eventually the CDC ceded control to the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Edward H. Harriman, who had an economic interest in not having to keep moving rail lines to higher ground and in not having the booming Imperial Valley end up under water, both literally and figuratively.
Photo: Salton Sea History Museum
After several failed attempts, Harriman ordered a trestle extended over the break. He then shut down all rail traffic in and out of Los Angeles for two weeks, loaded all available trains with gravel and rock and ordered them onto the trestle, where they dumped the cargo into the raging river.
In February 1907, after 18 months of struggle, the army of workers was finally able to coax the Colorado River back into the canals. But not before 400 square miles of Salton Sea had formed, which a perplexed Southern California just assumed would soon evaporate. But fed by runoff from the surrounding agriculture, the water level remained relatively steady.
So someone dropped some saltwater fish in. An enterprising bunch planted seaside resorts and unfurled marinas, and by the 1950s the Salton Sea had boomed into a fishing and boating mecca. On the western shore, a shrewd developer laid out Salton City and introduced it to gullible suburbanites in a grand ceremony, complete with an appearance by heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey.
It was California’s answer to the French Riviera, at one point attracting more people a year than Yosemite, the iconic national park to the north. Celebrities poured in alongside a steady stream of nuclear families . The Salton Sea even got its own monster movie: 1957’s bizarrely titled film The Monster Who Challenged the World, in which Tim Holt battles giant mollusks of some sort that have taken up residence in the lake.
It only took two tropical storms in the late ‘70s to wipe it all out. The bulging sea flooded the resorts. Fearing permanently volatile water levels, the ones who could afford to pulled out. Salton City’s developer had cashed out and left long before, leaving paved streets with names and no houses. The buildings and trailers that fell victim to the expanding sea remain to this day — gutted, vandalized, burned.
But in the decades before the storms hit, residents were noticing something disquieting: periodic mass die-offs of fish. Scientists would time and time again deem the creatures perfectly healthy and disease-free, blaming the episodes on the Sea’s wildly fluctuating temperature and ever-increasing salt content. The problem was accepted as a relatively tolerable occurrence, until August 1999, when 7.6 million oxygen-deprived fish died and washed ashore in a single day.
The Salton Sea had gone rogue.
The rapid retreat of the Salton Sea’s waterline is exposing a lake-bed where a century’s worth of agricultural chemicals are pooled. When completely dried, this grit becomes airborne in winds as slow as 5 miles per hour. With the evaporating sea projected to expose 134 square miles of such muck by 2035, it’s not difficult to forecast an unprecedented human health crisis in the Imperial Valley.
But in 2003, under pressure from the federal government to reform Southern California water rights, the Imperial Irrigation District, which divvies up water to the Imperial Valley’s fertile farm lands, reached a deal that effectively guaranteed the Salton Sea’s collapse. The Quantification Settlement Agreement transfers an enormous amount of Colorado River water to San Diego and its equally thirsty northern neighbor, Los Angeles. The deal allots virtually no water for the Salton Sea. The Irrigation District did, however, agree to deliver mitigation water to the Sea until 2017, by which time the state is required to have a large-scale restoration effort ready to go.
All the Sea needs to survive, of course, is more water. But in a state of 37 million people, of agricultural output totaling twice that of any other state, of countless square miles of lawn (including over 1,000 golf courses), the ostensibly dysfunctional sea takes last priority. Now it isn’t even allowed scraps. San Diego recently bankrolled the lining of canals around the Sea to ensure that the Colorado River, instead of seeping into the Sea, makes its way toward the coast.
The mitigation water, which is accumulated by asking farmers to fallow their land in exchange for cash, is intended to compensate for this. But the utility wants to stop the delivery of that share entirely, arguing that those few years’ worth of water is essentially wasted, since the Sea’s shrinkage will accelerate after 2017 anyway. It’s better to discontinue fallowing, they reason, and instead use the money to build habitats along the Sea’s southern shores that would reduce dust emissions.
“There are downsides to what we’re proposing,” Bruce Wilcox admitted while sitting in his office on the Imperial Irrigation District’s sprawling compound some 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. “I guess what we’re suggesting is $60 or $70 million would go a long way toward building habitat, which is not a permanent, long-range restoration of the Salton Sea, but is an incremental measure that would prolong the habitat of the Salton Sea.”
Wilcox and his team are basing this plan in part on data collected from the Owens Valley, which was left with 100 square miles of dry, pesticide- and fertilizer-infused lakebed after Los Angeles looted water from the Owens Valley in the early 20th century. Today, that valley is the scene of what the U.S. Geological Survey has called “possibly the greatest or most intense human-disturbed dust source on Earth.” A dust reduction project there has cost $400 million so far. Losing the Salton Sea entirely would expose more than three times as much lakebed as at Owens.
In an attempt to avoid this disastrous outcome, the Imperial Irrigation District has begun construction of a ring of experimental artificial habitats along the Sea’s southern shores. A thin layer of fresh water is piped into sections completely isolated from the rest of the lake, sections which are then stocked with fish. With the ability to move water in and out of the new habitats, scientists can avoid the stagnation and hypersalinity that plagues the Sea at large. Adding vegetation not only holds down the dirt, keeping it from becoming airborne, but also acts as a sort of dust-blocking palisade, which, if strategically grown, can in theory help protect populations downwind.
“We’re trying to get smart and identify areas that will blow easier, and the heavier areas where it’s more silt and salt,” Wilcox said. “This salt is almost of a talcum powder consistency. It’s finer than silt. It’s amazing. You can walk across it when it’s dry and look behind you and there’s a dust cloud following you. So how do you control that? The only way I honestly know to control that is either keep water off of it all the time and then it doesn’t form so much, or keep water on it all the time.”
Once implemented on a large scale, the habitats fashioned with this saturation approach will have the added benefit of supporting the birds that will suffer greatly from the decline of the Salton Sea.
But if the habitats can’t fully control the dust, the clouds will knock the birds right out of the air. The dust’s high alkali content will rot away the new vegetation, along with billions of dollars of agriculture in the Imperial Valley. But armed with cash, all the data he can get and the cooperation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wilcox presses on.
“You know, I’ve done this long enough to know that you can build habitat. Sometimes it’s expensive, but you can build it and you can manage it, and we’re not too worried about that,” Wilcox said. “Between us, the state, and the feds, I think we’ve got enough brain power — mostly from them, quite frankly — to do it.” [Feds.=”brain power?”]
An Advocate Picks Up Where Sonny Left Off
California Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez represents Southern California’s increasingly dusty 80th district, counting the Salton Sea among his constituents. The big blue blob is a festering sore in the land of many ills — Perez also has the regrettable task of tackling Imperial Valley’s unreal unemployment rate, the highest in the nation, which meanders between 25 and 30 percent.
For Perez, restoring the Salton Sea is not just an environmental responsibility. It’s a potential windfall for the people of the Imperial Valley, who so desperately need the jobs that the Sea provided in its boom times. So Perez is picking up where Sonny Bono left off.
In February 2011, he sponsored legislation that would have transferred authority for the Sea’s restoration from a Sacramento-based body called the Salton Sea Restoration Council, which never actually met since its creation in 2010, back to a local entity, the 20-year-old Salton Sea Authority. This bill, however, died in an appropriations committee. A modified version came late to the State Assembly session, and never got out of a rules committee before the session ended. Perez will have to resubmit new legislation when the Assembly reconvenes.
California Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez in his Sacramento office. Photo: Shaun Roberts/Wired
“I feel like it’s necessary that we do what we can to try to advance our bill where we would give that local control, local authority, to individuals who are very connected to that sea,” Perez said of the original bill in May.
But for many trust in the localized Salton Sea Authority evaporated in 2003 when it voted to support the Quantification Settlement Agreement. On the Authority’s board sat officials from local water agencies who signed away their water, which trickles into the Salton Sea through run-off, to San Diego. It was a blatant conflict of interest, claims Horvitz, the retired Superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.
“That was the turning point, where the Salton Sea Authority started for that era to become irrelevant,” Horvitz said.
Still, Horvitz thinks it may be the only entity capable of tackling the job. Indeed, cost-cutting California Governor Jerry Brown singled out the Salton Sea Restoration Council for elimination, and signed its death warrant with the state’s budget in June 2012, so the Salton Sea Authority is the only authority left. It’s yet another of the Sea’s many ironies: Brown’s attempt to cut the Salton Sea out the budget could land it in the hands of a group whose plans would cost the state even more money.
Before stepping aside for the Restoration Council in 2010, the Salton Sea Authority had proposed a $9 billion fix — which would have divided the Sea into two sections, an uninhabitable brine pool and a manageable habitat — that today is laughable. Perez’s original bill asked for $2 million from a restoration fund for the Authority to explore a new fix with a feasibility study.
“It may be a plan that’s going to cost $4 billion, which is still a lot of money,” Perez said. “Or even $3 billion. Regardless, though, it’s going to be a plan to be phased in over time, and looking at private resources perhaps to bring in those dollars, and at the same time trying to figure out where state government would play a role, if they so choose, and to what degree.”
Perez sees solar and Geothermal power, resorts, donated habitats, all done with private capital from those with a vested interest in the Sea.
Selling this idea must of course happen before the impending collapse of the Salton Sea ecosystem, when ever-increasing salt content becomes too much for the remaining 400 million tilapia, and before the receding shoreline turns the Imperial Valley into a dust bowl. Alternatively, Perez, the Salton Sea Authority, and the 160,000 residents of the Imperial Valley and another 600,000 to the north in Coachella Valley might hope the feds finally pump water back into the Sea when the toxic dust storms make what happened in Owens Valley look like a fleeting puff of smoke.
And so the Salton Sea stands with one foot in purgatory and one in hell. To simply survive for a while in purgatory, much less make it to paradise, will require a massive public-relations battle and a fierce fight for cash waged in the shadow of San Diego, that economic juggernaut of water-soaked McMansions and golf courses. And it will require a feat of environmental engineering like none other the American West has ever seen.
Photos: Shaun Roberts/Wired
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