The Salton Sea is Collapsing

The Salton Sea is shrinking rapidly, killing the fish on which migratory birds depend and exposing airborne dust that endangers the health of the 650,000 residents who live nearby.

The news came on the last day of the two-day October symposium on issues facing the Salton Sea. Leaders from Imperial County, in California’s southeast corner and at the southern end of the Sea, were preparing to formalize what all gathered at the symposium already knew: the Salton Sea represents a public health emergency for surrounding communities.

“The Salton Sea is really collapsing,” said Tina Shields of the Imperial Water District had remarked a day earlier, “and the air quality problems will just get worse if we don’t get a handle on it now. We need to get a handle on it now.”

A comprehensive solution has thus far eluded those who are seeing to avert the slow-motion collapse of the Salton Sea.

At somewhere around 350 square miles, the Salton Sea is by far California’s largest lake, yet one of its least known. The lake fills the Salton Sink, an intermittent wetland and part of the Colorado River floodplain that has filled and dried many times over the millennia. For much of the 20th century, the lake thrived as an important stop for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway and a booming tourist destination in the 1950s and 60s. In the last few decades, threatened by pollution, climate change and reduced inflow from changing water-use patterns, the Sea is shrinking rapidly, killing the fish on which various migratory birds depend and exposing airborne dust from the dry lakebed that endangers the health of the 650,000 residents who live in the immediate area.

“There's already money available,” said Frank Ruiz, Director of Audubon's Salton Sea program, “but we need the plan that the state of California has adopted to be implemented to be able to begin construction of wetlands, that will have multiple benefits. One of them is to cover the erosion of dust that can worsen conditions like asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses, and also provide habitat for migratory birds.”

In 2016, the state approved a 10-year management plan for the Sea, and millions of dollars are in place to begin projects to restore habitat and to mitigate the health effects of airborne contaminants, but progress has been painfully slow.

“Make no mistake, the state is behind as it relates to our annual targets for our 10-year management plan,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA). “Our focus now is not making more targets or more promises but actually getting projects done on the ground.”

CNRA Undersecretary for Salton Sea Policy Arturo Delgado told an auditorium of some 250 experts, conservationists and public officials that construction would begin next year on the plan’s “first major habitat” project, with completion expected by 2023.

“We can’t wait,” said Sahara Huazano of community advocacy organization Allianza. “We need to be organized and we need a clear plan…they’ve voted so many times on different plans and funds were allocated, but now they want to see it happen. The overall message is ‘let’s get to work.’”


How you can help, right now