Water

Salton Sea

A vital stopover for migratory birds.

Double-crested Cormorants in a dead tree on t​he south end of the Salton Sea​. Photo: Peter Bohler/Redux

The Salton Sea is one of the most important places for birds in North America and is in danger of losing its ecological value. If it does, we will lose a vital part of the Pacific Flyway and face a toxic dust bowl that will threaten public health for more than a million Californians.

As part of the Colorado River Delta, the sea filled and dried for thousands of years prior to its current, 35-mile-long incarnation, which came into existence as the result of a massive flood of the Colorado River in 1905. The 350-square-mile sea has partially replaced wetland habitat lost to agricultural and urban conversion in the Colorado River Delta, California’s coast, and the San Joaquin Valley.

The sea is a globally significant Important Bird Area. For more than a century, the sea has served as a major nesting, wintering, and stopover site for millions of birds of more than 400 species. Today, tiny Eared Grebes winter by the thousands in rafts far out on its surface. American White Pelicans roost on mudflats and fish for tilapia in its shallows.

Recently, its water level dropped to the point that colonial seabirds began abandoning nesting sites en masse in 2013, and shallow, marshy habitat areas at the sea’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish, particularly at the south end. And in 2017, inputs of Colorado River water that have been maintaining a minimum sea level are scheduled to end, as more water is transferred from local agricultural uses to urban uses on the coast. As less water flows into the sea, it will shrink considerably, becoming saltier and eventually inhospitable to birds, fish, and insects.