Our reporting trip to the Salton Sea is over, and we’re headed back over the mountains to LA catch a plane. I’d love to stay a few more days, because it’s turning out that the Salton Sea is a man-bites-dog story in another sense from the one I cited yesterday.
Here’s why: After years of hearing about how the agriculture that surrounds this key stop on the Pacific Flyway is harming the sea, it now turns out that ag and the Sea’s defenders are making common cause.
That’s because what the farmers need is water. And what the Sea needs is water. And they’re both going to lose it.
As part of a massive reordering of the way water is used in Southern California, something like 2oo,000 acre-feet of water a year — that’s roughly 100,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools — will be withdrawn from use by farmers whose Imperial Valley fields surround the Sea.
Now, you need to understand that water flows into the sea, but not out. Something like six feet of water evaporates every year. And why is it a “sea” if it’s inland? Because the Colorado River water that’s diverted into the farm fields around here carries with it a small amount of salt, along with pesticides, fertilizer and selenium. Over the years, water dumped on the farm fields flowed eventually into the sea, carrying its light load of salt. But as the water evaporated, it left behind a larger and larger load of salt. (Update/clarification 9/12/09: I realize in re-reading this that it might not be clear that a lot of the salt ending up in the sea is actually leached from the farm fields immediately surrounding it. I guess I also should have mentioned that the Salton Sea already is saltier than seawater.)
So long as water continues to flow into the sea, and continues to evaporate, the water gets saltier and saltier. Eventually, it will grow too salty to support fish and even bugs. At that point, the sea would no longer support birds along the Pacific Flyway. (For more on the overall scenario, see this excellent report by the Pacific Institute.)
There is a ray of hope: Efforts are underway to revitalize the Colorado River delta south of here, which has famously been not flowing to the sea many years because so much water is taken out upstream.
Now, if you talk to Norm Niver, who has fought to save the Sea for 44 years, you find out that he wants to continue putting water onto the farm fields around the sea, even though that means farmers’ pollution continues to flow into the sea with it.
Why? Because the alternative is no water — and no sea, and massive duststorms. This in a county that already has the highest rate of childhood asthma in California.
Already, Niver said:
Where there was water three months ago, I see dust rise.
So this 79-year-old environmental crusader who lives on the edge of the sea is fighting against the planned cutoff of water to farmers here in 2017:
We’re going to have a vast, barren desert. … I’m not trying to save the sea any more. I’m just trying to keep it wet.
— Robert McClure
I’m very much enjoying these blog posts on the Salton Sea, one of the places that’s long been on my “bucket list” to visit. The idea of a complete dewatering of the Salton Sea is really scary, both for the area’s residents and for the tens of thousands of migratory birds that use the Sea.
I’m looking forward to reading your finished story on this, and thanks for bringing attention to the issue. I’m still hopeful that a fix can be created, but Niver’s quotes above are awfully dismaying.
Hey, thanks a lot, Cat. I have to say that this is one of those dilemmas that defies easy solutions. There are some really smart people working on it, though.
One reason I wrote these posts is that I wanted to highlight these important issues outside the context of the flyway story that will be coming out in the fall.
Glad to see someone has taken this up. After travelling from Toronto to cover a sustainable seafood conference in San Diego last Feb, the first place I had to go see with my own eyes was the Salton Sea. If you’re an enviro jurno, that’s what you do right?
Its a classic “what the hell were we thinking?” And it would be a nightmare if that foul salty soup dried up and started blowing around. But hey, remember the Aral Sea?
Great to see a new model for public service investigate jurno, I’ve been banging that drum for some time: There has never been a stronger need for good information to help the public make informed choices about a number of crucial issues. We are living in a time of serious consequences.