How Do We Save the Salton Sea?

For decades California's largest lake has teetered on the edge of ecological disaster. But a new deal and action plan may finally be gaining momentum.

The people who live around the Salton Sea, a 350-square-mile saltwater lake in Southern California, are rather sensitive about its reputation. Visit this onetime tourist destination on a typical 100-degree afternoon, and you might see Yellow-footed Gulls sailing past a deserted marina crusted in salt and over an upturned piano, a rusted crane, and a lifeless pit bull baking on a shoreline of fish bones and barnacle shells. Call it desolate or eerie, residents say, but do not call it an accident.

Given how it was created, it’s easy to see why people might describe California’s largest lake that way. It started forming in 1905 when floods breached a levee on the Colorado River, sending a massive flow roaring downhill into a natural bowl, the Salton Sink, some 230 feet below sea level. The water gushed for 18 months before engineers finally fixed the breach. Other ancient lakes had filled the sink after other big floods, only to evaporate over millennia in the sweltering desert heat. So far the sea has persisted, sustained—and poisoned—by irrigation water from booming farms in the surrounding Imperial Valley, where today 500,000 acres of fields provide America with fruits, nuts, hay, and two-thirds of its winter vegetables.

Just a half-century ago the Salton Sea supported a thriving economy. Enterprising developers built marinas and hotels along the shore, attracting tourists and sport fishermen, who reeled in orangemouth corvina and sargo stocked by the state. Celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Desi Arnaz, vacationed at the lake, and speedboat races drew crowds thousands strong. “It was like a spring break party all the time,” says Louis Knight, a 44-year veteran of the fire department at Bombay Beach, a town of roughly 300 people on the eastern side of the lake.

But with no natural outlet and rapid evaporation, the lake became more and more toxic as the concentration of salt and nutrients from irrigation waters increased. In the 1990s the desert oasis dream was largely abandoned; nobody wants to sunbathe beside algal blooms or amid the stench of rotting fish. Skinny cats and off-road enthusiasts have replaced Bombay Beach’s water-skiers and beachgoers. In Salton City, across the lake, a grid of streets with hopelessly romantic names like Honolulu and Sea Mist is fitted with electricity and plumbing but remains mostly undeveloped. Some of the few modest homes that were built on the water’s edge are now a football field inland.

The Salton Sea has persisted for more than a century, sustained largely by irrigation water that drains from surrounding agricultural fields, like those in Calipatria. Peter Bohler

Even as the human crowds have diminished, millions of birds continue to flock to the Salton Sea, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast in terms of avian diversity and abundance in the Lower 48. It might seem an unlikely key stopover site or breeding grounds along the Pacific Flyway, particularly because the sea is now one-third more saline than the Pacific Ocean and periodically belches noxious clouds of hydrogen sulfide that have, on occasion, wafted as far as Los Angeles. But with the vast majority of the West Coast’s wetlands now ruined, hundreds of avian species have little choice but to rely on what is essentially a huge ag sump. Burrowing Owl nests dot miles of drainage canals, Brown Pelicans gorge on large schools of hardy tilapia, and American Avocets hunt tiny invertebrates like brine shrimp that have hung on in the lake.

Yet life and death already mingle uncomfortably closely at the Salton Sea, and things are about to get a whole lot worse—unless drastic measures are finally taken. That’s because at the end of 2017, the Colorado River water that has been sustaining the sea—which makes its way to the lake via the region’s irrigated farmland—will instead go to thirsty San Diego, due to a massive water-transfer deal struck in 2003. Under legislation passed the same year, the state is legally required to create a master plan to preserve the Salton Sea.

If it doesn’t, experts say, the sea will shrink by 60 percent by 2030. Salinity will increase threefold, killing off every last fish and desiccating countless acres of marsh and grasslands, leaving millions of birds without food or nesting habitat. Dust storms will pick up farm chemicals and pesticides from tens of thousands of acres of newly exposed lakebed, sending the powdered toxins swirling through surrounding rural Southern California communities that are home to about 650,000 residents, many of them poor and Latino. Already the children in the region suffer some of the highest asthma rates in the state.

Now government agencies and local stakeholders, including Audubon California, are racing to devise a plan that will stave off a full-out environmental catastrophe. The good news is that, finally, at this late hour, after years of half-baked attempts to restore the vanishing ecosystem, it looks like they just might succeed.

Bird guide Bob Miller worries about how birds will fare amid coming water reductions. Peter Bohler

Bob Miller is bouncing along the shore in his dusty white jeep when he hits the brakes and snaps his binoculars to his eyes. “Well, I’ll be dipped in hooey!” he exclaims as he spots a small Rock Wren alighting on nearby scrub brush. “That’s the first of the season.” It’s September, and Miller, a self-proclaimed redneck tree hugger and former truck driver who hosts regular birding trips around the lake, is driving past bubbling mud pits and hills of obsidian. He proceeds to rattle off a dozen more bird species. Some 40 percent of endangered Yuma Ridgway’s Rails nest at the Salton Sea, and it’s a wintering site for up to 30 percent of American White Pelicans and, in some years, as many as 90 percent of the state’s wintering Eared Grebes. “There’s just so much here,” he says.

Miller has seen promise after promise to save the Salton Sea die in the cradle, and he’s grown tired of government decision makers who won’t make decisions. “They study it. Nothing. And they study it. Nothing,” he says. “It’s going to get fixed, or it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Like Miller, Vic Leipzig, head of Audubon’s Sea & Sage chapter in Orange County and a natural history instructor at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, has led Salton Sea birding tours for decades. He, too, frets over what will become of the birds if the lake is allowed to collapse. “Where would the cormorants go? Where would the Caspian Terns go?” he asks. Some believe Mexico’s Laguna Salada could play a bigger role in the Pacific Flyway. But Salada is an ephemeral water body, and it is replenished only by very high tides or Colorado River floods. Even when it has water, it is shallow. Biologists, in all, say it would be an exceptionally poor substitute for the Salton Sea. “I know of no real alternative,” Leipzig says.

Walking along a dried-out cove, Leipzig describes how he has watched the lake shrink before his eyes, and how the birds have suffered. There was the mysterious die-off of 150,000 Eared Grebes in 1992. Then there are the periodic outbreaks of avian botulism, a bacterial disease that can kill birds in close quarters by the thousands. “The birds know the sea is in trouble,” Leipzig says as he wipes sweat from his forehead and scans the horizon for the last of the lake’s flamingos, introduced decades ago by the owners of a now-shuttered lakeside dance club called Hell’s Kitchen.

Leipzig doesn’t mince words when he lays blame for the grim reality in front of us on the Imperial Valley–San Diego water deal—the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in American history. “It was one of the unwisest environmental decisions in recent history,” he declares.

In 2003 San Diego County struck a deal with the Imperial Valley to buy water to support its growing population of three million-plus. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) is entitled to 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year. The agency agreed to transfer increasing proportions of its allotment to San Diego in exchange for billions of dollars that it would use to, in part, make improvements to outdated irrigation infrastructure in the valley. With the metropolis buying hundreds of thousands of acre-feet a year and Imperial Valley farms receiving a windfall to install drip irrigation and line canals, both sides win. There’s the additional environmental benefit of boosting water efficiency—something that’s become increasingly critical as the drought gripping California extends into its fifth year.

Yet there is an enormous downside to the deal: The reduced agricultural runoff would mean disaster for the sea, which is fed almost entirely by that water. So the agreement called for “mitigation water” from fallowed farmland to be added to the lake—with farmers receiving compensation for unplanted acres—through 2017. After that the volume will go to San Diego instead. To address the problem, the state, a party to the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreed to draft a master plan to preserve the Salton Sea.

That hasn’t happened yet.

If the state doesn’t step in very soon, the reverberations could be felt far beyond the Imperial Valley. Failure to act could put the whole transfer agreement in jeopardy and open the state to litigation. Already, Kevin Kelley, general manager of the irrigation district, has gone so far as to intimate that if the state doesn’t develop a long-term plan by the deadline, the IID might cut off water deliveries to San Diego entirely.

“IID’s position is that you can’t just continue to transfer water and leave a giant question mark at the Salton Sea. You can’t just leave an environmental ghetto,” says Kelley. He is under no illusions that the sea will be anything like the body of water it was when he was growing up in the town of Brawley, south of the lake. “It will necessarily be smaller,” he says. “We’re just saying it has to be sustainable.”

There is no shortage of ideas about how to fix the Salton Sea. Grander schemes include a $9 billion restoration project the state proposed in 2007, as well as a perennial pitch to pump water from the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez, which would also cost billions. The vast majority of plans, big and small, have been stymied by state-level gridlock, bureaucratic infighting, budget constraints, and the record-breaking drought. Since the water-transfer deal was struck in 2003, only a few dozen acres of wetlands have actually been rebuilt.

The current push for a solution, however, is unlike anything seen before, says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. There’s been more forward momentum in the past year than in the previous 12. In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that mandates the restoration of up to 12,000 acres of habitat by 2020. A patchwork of restoration projects is already breaking ground. Last fall, for example, construction began on a 420-acre, $3.5 million project that will transform Red Hill Bay, part of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This dried-out landscape, where Ospreys nest in trees once rooted in two feet of water, is on its way to becoming shorebird habitat again.

Most important, by the end of the year, Governor Brown is widely expected to finally approve a long-range management plan.

Bruce Wilcox is the man charged with creating that unified blueprint—and wrangling money and cooperation from the many federal, state, and local agencies working on the lake. A former IID environmental manager with a reputation for getting things done, Wilcox was appointed last September to the newly created position of assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy within the California Natural Resources Agency. Wilcox says, “We have what we need to get the ball rolling”: authority, knowledge of the lake, and relationships with the people responsible for conserving it. Jones, Kelley, and other stakeholders share his confidence that he’s up to the task.

The plan Wilcox puts forth will likely draw largely from the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, a $3.15 billion proposal released by the IID in 2015 that would kick-start shovel-ready pilot projects and new geothermal energy development along the lake’s shores. The proposal would move the state closer to its goal of getting half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and generate funds for restoration efforts. In March an Australian company, Controlled Thermal Resources, took the first steps toward gaining approval for a 250-megawatt geothermal plant on the lake’s southern shore.

Whatever framework is approved promises to stand as one of the most significant