Time is running out to save the Salton Sea

Ed Victoria of Los Angeles sits under an umbrella in April 2015 as he fishes for tilapia along the receding banks of the Salton Sea near Bombay Beach.
Ed Victoria of Los Angeles sits under an umbrella in April 2015 as he fishes for tilapia along the receding banks of the Salton Sea near Bombay Beach. The Associated Press

In the mid-1940s, the Salton Sea was a hotbed of activity, attracting Hollywood’s most glamorous actors and musicians to its yacht clubs and campgrounds. Now, what was once the largest lake in California is disappearing before our eyes and endangering all its life.

We can still save it, but if we don’t, we will have a massive public health, environmental and economic crisis that could cost as much as $70 billion.

The Salton Sea is a lake that was created most recently 112 years ago after canals and dikes failed along the Colorado River, opening the Imperial Valley to extreme flooding. This engineering mistake is now home to millions of birds and fish. But over the past few years, we have seen lake levels drop.

So how is a lake, three times larger than Owens Lake, on the brink of collapse? An agricultural-to-urban water-transfer agreement between the Imperial Valley and urban San Diego and Coachella valleys is the main reason. This agreement contractually obligated the state to address the environmental impacts from the water transfer to the sea. But there has been little action over the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, the sea has been kept from collapse by water deliveries required under the agreement. This temporary plan was meant to buy time until the sea was restored and will end in 2017.

In about 15 years, however, 60 percent of the Salton Sea’s volume will be gone and 100 square miles of lake bed will be exposed.

The less water, the more the salty underbelly of the lake is exposed, damaging crucial habitat in the water and on land. The dry lake bed releases toxic dust that is inhaled by 650,000 people who live nearby, causing respiratory illnesses.

The state recently created the Salton Sea Management Program, making money available for stakeholder-supported projects, including more than 1,000 acres of habitat and dust control projects. However, we need to do more – and now.

First we must restore some of the wetlands we’ve already lost or could lose as the sea recedes. The Salton Sea has become a resting place for half of the nation’s birds as more than 90 percent of wetlands across California have been destroyed – the most in the nation. Wetlands restoration provides bird habitat and improves air quality.

Next, we must start working toward a smaller but sustainable sea that can still serve the needs of wildlife and the surrounding community. Through smart planning, we can maintain habitat for more than 400 species of migrating birds and the ever-disappearing fish species. Maintaining the Salton Sea will also reduce dust in the air and keep kids from the East Coachella and Imperial valleys out of the hospital for asthma attacks.

Lastly, the Salton Sea has a ton of geothermal potential. This energy resource is free of carbon pollution and won’t add to climate change, which is driving a lot of problems affecting the lake.

This approach is the best path forward, but it won’t be easy. We have seen incredible steps taken so far, including $80 million from the state and support from the Obama administration. But to truly stop both an ecological and environmental justice crisis, more resources and funding must be devoted to saving the Salton Sea.

Sarah Friedman is senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and can be contacted at Kyle Jones is a policy advocate with Sierra Club California and can be contacted at