Soapbox

Salton Sea water diversion could be catastrophic for public health

The Salton Sea has been shrinking for years and in January 2018, more water will be diverted from the Imperial Valley and sent to urban water districts. As a result, the Salton Sea will shrink rapidly, leaving behind vast areas of dry, toxic lake bed.
The Salton Sea has been shrinking for years and in January 2018, more water will be diverted from the Imperial Valley and sent to urban water districts. As a result, the Salton Sea will shrink rapidly, leaving behind vast areas of dry, toxic lake bed. Associated Press file

Flint, Mich., is not the only place in the U.S. facing a devastating, preventable public health disaster.

In January 2018, water that had been flowing into the Salton Sea will be diverted from the Imperial Valley and sent to urban water districts. As a result, the Salton Sea will shrink rapidly, leaving behind vast areas of dry lake bed. These exposed beaches will be a source of highly toxic, wind-blown dust affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of Californians living in the Coachella and Imperial valleys.

The drinking water disaster at Flint is an example of a perfect storm of public policy failure. It combines bad decisions made by unelected officials, which affect large numbers of under-represented groups, and are based on saving money as opposed to protecting public health. Tragically, this may also describe the situation at the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has been experiencing a slow environmental decline for years, but starting in 2018 the environmental problems will turn catastrophic.

Transfer of water to the urban water districts will expose dozens of square miles of dry lake bottom. The dust this exposure will generate contains silicates, toxic and caustic salts, and heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and selenium. The California Air Resources Board warns that this dust can cause asthma, lung and heart disease, and premature death. The elderly and children are at particular risk.

The Palm Springs, La Quinta, Indian Wells area in the Coachella Valley is a favorite location for retirement communities, golf and tennis tournaments, and popular outdoor concerts. How attractive will these destinations be in the face of clouds of toxic dust? The Imperial Valley to the south of the Salton Sea is the poorest county in California, with large minority populations and childhood asthma rates already twice the statewide average.

Are the inhabitants of the Imperial and Coachella valleys less worthy of protection from air pollution than the inhabitants of Los Angeles or the Central Valley? Do they live too far from Sacramento to have a political voice? Are they undeserving of advocates for their health and well-being?

It is high time we provide answers to these questions affecting large numbers of people, as well as future generations.

Over two decades ago, similar issues arose at Mono Lake, where Los Angeles’ diversion of water adversely affected air quality throughout the region until courts ordered a reversal of policy. We should not make the same mistake twice.

The costs of mitigation efforts at the Salton Sea might well exceed $2 billion. Yet a report by Michael Cohen at the Pacific Institute estimated damages of at least $29 billion, if the problems are not addressed. Decisions need to be made not on the basis of current financial expediency, but the longer-term financial and health impacts to the entire region.

California officials agreed in 2002 to address the environmental, ecological and public health problems at the Salton Sea. Now, 13 years later, they have yet to carry out meaningful activities on the ground.

The credibility of state regulators is at stake.

The State Water Resources Control Board and the Air Resources Board need to accept their responsibility to protect the health and well-being of all Californians, regardless of the political clout of those citizens or their proximity to Sacramento.

Timothy J. Bradley is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and director of the UC Irvine Salton Sea Initiative. Contact him at tbradley@uci.edu. David L. Feldman is a professor of planning, policy and design, and director of Water UCI at the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology. Contact him at feldmand@uci.edu.

  Comments