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Future of the Salton Sea is tied to fate of imperiled Colorado River

Bombay Beach, once a hot-spot for tourists in the middle of the last century, has become a haven for artists. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
Bombay Beach, once a hot-spot for tourists in the middle of the last century, has become a haven for artists. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

A shortage on the Colorado River has put tremendous pressure on the water supply that serves more than 40-million people in the Western United States.

But a punishing drought and the over allocation of the river have also created an urgent problem for California’s Salton Sea.

The 340-square-mile lake was formed in 1905 when a canal carrying river water to farmers in the Imperial Valley ruptured. The flood created a desert oasis that lured tourists and migratory birds to its shore. A century later, the Salton Sea — California’s largest lake — is spiraling into an ecological disaster.

The state of California has started projects to help stabilize the Salton Sea’s shoreline, including this one near Salton City. The hay bales are designed to interrupt the gusting wind and allow natural vegetation to take root. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

Bombay Beach: A ‘Bohemian community’

At 223 feet below sea level, Bombay Beach occupies a low spot on the map.

Many of the shoreline community’s trailer homes are rusting into the earth and tagged with graffiti. Artists have created large pieces of public sculpture, including a vintage phone booth that stands on the shoreline as a tribute to a bygone era.

During the 1950s and 1960s Bombay Beach was swinging. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Desi Arnaz flocked to the area.

“People would come here for the boating, the fine dining, the golfing, you name it. For many years, this was the hottest place in Southern California. It was even called the California Riviera,” says Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s Salton Sea director.

The tourists and celebrities are gone. So are many of the community’s residents. About 230 people live in Bombay Beach now. On a recent windy day, foul-smelling yellow foam collected on the eroding shoreline.

A major drought on the Colorado River is imperling the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

The Salton Sea’s decline is decades in the making

To understand why the Salton Sea is declining, it helps to look at where the water comes from. The lake is fed almost entirely by agricultural runoff — irrigation water from the Colorado River that drains off nearby farms.

The region is one of the most productive spots for winter produce in the United States.  Lettuce, onions, alfalfa, dates and citrus grow prolifically in the mild climate.

In 2003, a deal with the local irrigation district sent a large share of its water to San Diego. That has left less water for local farms — and for the Salton Sea. A hotter and drier climate has also accelerated shortages on the river, which means the lake is shrinking fast.

In certain areas the shore has receded up to 100 feet, Ruiz said. “And with the Colorado River crisis, the Salton Sea is going to recede at a much faster pace,” he added, referring to the federal government’s warning that states must save an additional 2 to 4 million acre feet of water to stabilize the reservoirs and keep the river flowing downstream past Lake Mead.

“This is going to be a nightmare,” he said.

As the water level drops, the ecological disaster grows: The Salton Sea is getting saltier. The birds are leaving. The fish are suffocating.

But according to Ruiz, the real nightmare is what’s lurking in the dried up lake bed: copper, arsenic, selenium and DDT, a toxic insecticide left over from generations of farming.

“When those particles dry up, just think what they can do to the community,” Ruiz says.

When the wind blows, those chemicals get whipped up off the lakebed and become a hazard for the people who live nearby. It’s a problem the state of California is trying urgently to fix.

Plans to save the lake

About an hour’s drive from Bombay Beach, on the south side of the Salton Sea, work crews have been building up islands and digging deep ponds that will soon be filled with lake water.

Construction crews are planning to flood 4,100 acres (or 6.5 square miles) of exposed lakebed as part of the state of California’s 10-year plan to save the Salton Sea. This area will be underwater when the project is completed later this year. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

This will be a new habitat for wildlife. The project spans six-and-a-half square miles of exposed shoreline. Today it’s a vast field of open dirt, but in a few months, a system of pumps will be ready to suck water deep from the Salton Sea, and send it gushing over the dried up lake bed.

The birds have already noticed the changing landscape. White-faced ibis, ducks, blue heron and egrets have all been spotted here.

Project manager Vivien Maisonneuve lifts his binoculars to see hundreds of birds take flight off the water.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to recreate,” Maisonneuve says.

Flooding the shoreline will not only provide habitat but also keep toxic dust out of the air.

The project is part of California’s 10-year plan to save the Salton Sea. Using money from the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government agreed in November 2022 to spend $250 million to help prevent further environmental disaster at the lake.

In exchange, local irrigation districts have volunteered to give up several hundred thousand acre feet of Colorado River water over the next four years.

Lisa Lien-Mager at 4,100 acre habitat restoration site on the Salton Sea. The California Natural Resources Agency is working on a 10-year plan to reverse the environmental disaster on the state’s largest lake. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

It’s a significant amount of water, which means the lake is going to dry up even further, says Lisa Lien-Mager of the California Natural Resources Agency.

“We think there’s a point at which the sea eventually stabilizes. Into, like 2048, there’s some modeling that shows you’d have a smaller sea confined to where the deepest parts are and it would reach a sort of equilibrium,” she says.

By the time that happens, the state predicts that 84-square miles of the Salton Sea will have vanished.

Living in a toxic environment

Julietta del Castillo and her mom Nancy live in the lakeside community of Salton City.

Most of the lots in the neighborhood are empty. Stands of dead palm trees look like broken fingers pointing at the sky.

They say the air smells like fish, so does their hair and clothes. The polluted air affects their breathing, Julietta says.

A study from the University of Southern California shows that up to 30% of the kids in this area have asthma, that’s far above the state average.

Julietta’s hands crack with eczema. Her brother gets nosebleeds. Nancy carries eye drops and inhalers.

Nancy doesn’t think the state’s plans to save the lake will help, and neither does Luis Olmedo.

“A quarter of a billion dollars is a drop in the bucket,” Olmedo says.

Olmedo leads a community group called Comite Civico del Valle.

He says for years industry and government have failed to invest in the people who bear the burden of this toxic environment. Recent promises of lithium extraction in the area have sparked fresh economic hopes and some new environmental fears.

“We are the sacrifice zone. We’re a predominantly Latino population, predominately of color, low income. This is our story,” Olmedo says.

He praises the state of California and the Biden administration for finally getting serious about the Salton Sea, but he wants to know: If the Imperial Valley gives up a big share of precious river water, what do the people get out of it?

He thinks about the saying “clear accounting builds long friendships.”

“At this point we don’t have any clear account of what’s happening. All we see is ‘you’re taking more of our water and we get a few million dollars for it.’ How do you call that a fair negotiation? We’re not ignorant. We know how to do math,” he says.

The ‘last-standing jewel’

A two-decade drought that is stealing the water and fouling the air has become a complex problem without a simple answer.

The federal government has told the seven states that rely on the river that they’ll have to make drastic cuts to keep the water flowing downstream past Lake Mead.

The ongoing negotiations have been tense, but it appears increasingly likely that cities and farms across the West will have to make deeper sacrifices that could change the future of the West.

Near Bombay Beach, Audubon’s Frank Ruiz trudges through the mud at a smaller restoration project that will cover another 1,000 acres of toxic shoreline with water.

Audubon California’s Frank Ruiz looks for migratory birds at a wetland near Bombay Beach. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

“The Salton Sea is the last-standing jewel along the Pacific Flyway that brings birds from Alaska all the way down to South America,” says Ruiz. “What is going to happen when this area is gone? I think time is running out.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.