When I first began to think about walking the entire shoreline of Salton Sea I admit that it was mostly selfish. “My” bucket list, “my” adventure, “my” fun. Me, me me. I loved Salton Sea as a child and it always held a special place in my heart and memories, but I guess I always took it for granted. I always assumed it would be there for me to enjoy, no matter what. Now that I have begun spending more time there, researching locations, local businesses, and wildlife, I have realized how ignorant I have been about Salton Sea and how if we don’t take action now, it might be too late and we could lose it – and losing it would not be a good thing.
Salton Sea can easily dry up
The first thing that I’ve assumed all-along is that Salton Sea is so large that it’s just a permanent part of California. Even though I knew that it was created by “accident” I just figured that it was simply “too big to fail” or dry up. I’ve learned that this is not the case.
Because of the extreme summer temperatures, approximately 66 inches of water evaporates out of Salton Sea yearly. By contrast, the sea receives only about 3 inches of rain water per year. I’m no math genius, but I can see that without some way to make up that difference, the sea is going to dry up. For the last 100 years or so this difference in water was made up by farm irrigation runoff flowing into the sea, but this is changing. Recently less and less water has been going into Salton Sea and more and more is and will continue to be diverted to areas like San Diego that need the water.
When I visited Salton Sea earlier this year after a 35 year absence I saw clear evidence that it was already beginning to dry up. In 1979 the shoreline of my old camping ground at Corvina Beach was only a few yards from road. Today, it is nearly 100 yards away illustrating reports that the Salton Sea has shrunk in size by nearly 15 miles in only the last few years. If something is not done Salton Sea will dry up.
It’s getting saltier and smellier
When Salton Sea was formed by Colorado River water about 110 years ago, it was hardly salty at all. But because of the natural salt in the ground (left by ancient lakes drying up), the constant inflow of irrigation bringing in more dissolved salts, high evaporation rate, and no water-outlets, it gets saltier every year. When camping there as a kid in the 1970’s, Salton Sea was hardly salter than the ocean. Today it’s a lot saltier than the ocean, and it increases by about 1% each year. At this rate it won’t be long before the salt alone kills all of the fish, then barnacles, then pretty much everything else.
Along with the salinity constantly assaulting the fish at Salton Sea is the algae. As the summertime temperatures heat the water, the algae “blooms”. When this happens it consumes a high percentage of the oxygen out of the water. Once the bloom hits a tipping point it can suck so much oxygen out of the water that the fish can no longer ‘breathe’ and they begin to die. In the late 1970’s we witnessed one of the first (then new and mysterious) fish die-offs, leaving millions of dead fish washed up on the shore. Since then it has become an almost yearly event. These fish die-offs not only impact the fishing (can’t catch any fish if they’re all dead!) but it also creates a tremendously horrible smell and leaves blankets of fish bones on the shore making Salton Sea unpleasant to say the least, and drives away tourists and visitors.
People actually live at and rely on the Salton Sea
As a youngster camping at Salton Sea I never considered the people that live in the area. Honestly, they never entered my mind. Now after stepping through virtually every city and neighborhood along the shores of Salton Sea, meeting and speaking with residents and business owners, I now have an appreciation of the economic and social implications of what can happen if we let Salton Sea die.
As the sea continues to shrink, so does the amount of visitors, fishermen and tourists. Less visitors and tourism means less customers at local gas stations, restaurants, mini-markets, bait-shops, etc. Less customers means business close. Closed businesses mean less jobs. It’s a downward spiral. If something is not done or if things don’t change more people will be forced to move away. Those that cannot afford to move are trapped with less and less of those local services and businesses that they need, forcing them to travel further, raising their costs to live even more, making the trap even tighter. I don’t pretend to understand the enormity of the social-economic impact of the slow death of Salton Sea, but I can see that it’s not just about saving the fish or saving the ecology, it’s about saving real people, real families and their way of life.
The subject of wildlife and in particular, birds at Salton Sea is probably where I have been most ignorant. I’ve known for years, especially since the dedication of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge, that Salton Sea was an important stopover for migrating birds. But I never truly understood it’s importance. In the past I had even argued the case that if Salton Sea were to suddenly go away, the birds would simply just go wherever they went in 1904, before Salton Sea was formed – no big deal.
The problem with my previous [ignorant] logic, and what I now realize, is that today most of those places that birds lived and stopped at during migration before Salton Sea existed are now Walmart Parking lots and mega-shopping malls! The birds have no place else to go. Today, more than ever Salton Sea is a very important part of the migration ‘flyway’ that the birds rely on.
The dust bowl of Salton Sea
Think for a moment about what Salton Sea is. It is like (as quoted in a “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” ) a puddle at the bottom of a dry swimming pool. Just like any puddle at the bottom of the pool, that’s where all the gross stuff is. For over 100 years irrigation-run off full of chemicals, nitrates, phosphates, sewage, and who knows what else has been flowing into Salton Sea. Most of this bad stuff dissolves and isn’t an issue “in the water” because it all sinks and settles to the sea floor. Now imagine that the puddle at the bottom of the pool dries up. What’s left? A pile of what looks like dirt. Now imagine a stiff wind. Where does that dirt and dust go?
Again, in my ignorance, I had never considered this potential problem. I know that the winds in this area can be powerful – just look at the wind-mill farm only a few miles north near Palm Springs. Now imagine all that fine, near-invisble, dirty, poison dust blowing all over Indio, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, and god-forbid, Palm Springs. And what’s to keep it from reaching further north to areas like the Inland Empire? Let Salton Sea dry up and die, and sadly, we will all find out, and many experts agree that we aren’t going to like it.
So what’s the answer?
I’m sure I’ve missed, and am still ignorant of many of the issues that Salton Sea faces (please post a comment if you know more), and I don’t pretend to be smart enough to have the answers to any of these problems (please post your answers in a comment below!).
Saving or even just maintaing Salton Sea will be complicated. It will be expensive, and nobody wants to pay for it and the longer we wait the worse it gets. But if we are ignorant about the issues like I was, or if we just ignore the problems or kick the can down the road for someone else to worry about, I’m smart enough to realize that we aren’t going to be happy with the result.
If even me, a self-proclaimed “Salton Sea lover” has not paid close enough attention to know about these things, how much do you think Average Joe and Average Jane know or care?