One of the biggest misconceptions about the Salton Sea is that it is the result of some kind of accident, or even worse, human folly. And although the historical record is pretty clear, this notion persists and undermines efforts to do right by the people and wildlife in the area.
It’s hard to find a better example than this 2015 article in the Washington Post, in which a key paragraph opens, “Created by accident more than a century ago and fed largely by agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea is a difficult place to champion.”
Let’s look at the history.
Since before the Civil War, developers had eyed California’s Imperial Valley as a place where they could increase the value of the land by irrigating it with water from the Colorado River. Making this plan more attractive was the existence of a potential runoff receptacle in the Salton Sink, an ancient lakebed that already collected water every thousand years or so when the Colorado River naturally changed direction. In other words, the idea was to water the land and let the runoff create a giant lake.
In the early Twentieth Century, that plan was finally put in motion, and construction on a canal to transport water to the Imperial Valley was begun. In 1905, heavy rains caused the river to overwhelm the unfinished canal and spill water across the valley into what is now called the Salton Sea. It took eighteen months for workers to finally plug the breach, but in the meantime, the Salton Sea as we know it was formed.
Once the canal was fixed, that water didn’t just back into the Colorado River. Quite the contrary, the canal did what it was intended to do, which is to say it directed that water onto the Imperial Valley, and the subsequent runoff went into the Salton Sea. I don’t know anything about hydrology, but I’m going to guess that none of the original 1905 water remains in the Salton Sea at this point. Or if it does, it’s beside the point. The Salton Sea is sustained by the runoff water, linked inextricably to a dynamic that drives a multi-billion dollar agricultural economy in southeastern California.
Does it make any sense to call the Salton Sea’s creation an accident when the stated goal was always to fill the Salton Sink with water? And does it make any sense to attribute its existence to that 1905 incident when, if fact, it is actually perpetuated by runoff from Imperial Valley farms? The answer is no in both cases.
The creation of the Salton Sea was as intentional as the Golden Gate Bridge.
It is disappointing that this notion persists because, as the quote from the Washington Post above suggests, it makes it easy to dismiss the crisis as man-made, and thus for some reason, less compelling. But that’s exactly wrong.
Beginning in 2018, the Salton Sea is going to get a lot less of that Colorado River water, eventually up to 40 percent less. Huge expanses of lakebed may be exposed, creating plumes of toxic dust that will threaten the health of roughly 700,000 nearby residents. Critical habitat for birds will also disappear, and water toxicity will kill off the fish that birds need to survive.
This deadline hasn’t snuck up on anybody. Back in 2003, the State of California committed to funding and implementing restoration projects to reduce dust and bolster habitat, but that hasn’t happened.
When we describe the Salton Sea as an accident, we not only ignore the truth, but we also undercut the severity of the predicament of the people in nearby communities. These are generations of Californians who have been promised relief from the ongoing environmental crisis. Instead, they’ve seen rates of asthma and health conditions skyrocket. They’ve seen their communities suffer economically.
They deserve better.