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Loss of the Salton Sea

Dust Storms Loom in San Diego’s Future Horizons

By Michael Nauss

San Diego’s thirst for water has seeped into Imperial Valley with the Salton Sea being left out to dry.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Interior reduced Southern California’s intake of water from the Colorado River by 800,000 acre feet per year. That amounts to roughly 2 million households. In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis signed legislation that has redirected water from Imperial Valley to San Diego County.

The governmental water grab is complex and is murkier than the now threatened Salton Sea. The inland coastal regions of Southern California are using more than their fair share of the region’s limited water supply. By consuming Imperial County agricultural runoff water, the major source for the Salton Sea, the sea is now shrinking.

The potential consequences posed by the Salton Sea’s present course would be nocuous, and the death of the sea would harm Southern California.

As the Salton Sea shores evaporate and the shorelines dwindle away, fine dust particulates will become exposed to the dry desert air. These fine particles would be susceptible to becoming airborne and adjoining with accompanying high gust winds that are commonplace in the Imperial Valley region. The Imperial winds are capable of carrying these particles hundreds of miles.

Although these floating particulates will become a source of pollution, a greater danger exists within this floating debris of desert blow sand. Much of the sea is a product of agricultural runoff with dissolved pesticide agents. These agents pose a real threat to the Southern California population. It is predicted that respiratory illness, such as asthma and tuberculosis, will dramatically increase. Owens Valley and Mono Lake California provide historical models for the fate of the Salton Sea.
The backwash of a shrinking sea shoreline also poses a threat to the 600,000 acres of agricultural farmlands which supply much of the nation’s food crop. Dust emissions throughout the Imperial Valley would become frequent. Blanketing crops with silted desert dust would hinder plant photosynthesis, transpiration, and respiration.
This would greatly affect crop yields. Reduction in crop production would expose the fertile soil to erosional winds. The outcome would be a loss of rich soil and a further increase in dust storms within the Imperial Valley.

In 1905 the Colorado River breached the Imperial Dyke and overflowed into the Salton Sink, the now Salton Sea. The river continued to fill the sink for 18 months. The Salton Sea we know of today was formed.

During the 1950s, the Department of Fish and Game transported dozens of fish species from San Felipe to the Salton Sea. Species such as Corvina and the hardy African Tilapia were added, and have flourished. As the fish became fruitful, so did the ecological system as a whole. The sea became a major fly-way for more than 400 species of birds — many of which are on the endangered species list — including the Bald Eagle, Brown Pelican, and the Peregrine Falcon. Most of these avian travelers are migratory while other species have established the sea as their home.

Aquatic creatures and waterfowl have flourished at the sea, however, they are not without their terrestrial counterparts as, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians also thrive along the skirts of the sea.

The diverse ecosystem of the Salton area is a delicate balance, and changes that tilt the scales of this biologically sensitive region can have negative results on the whole Salton Basin. The consequences would impact wildlife, agriculture, and the human population. Preservation of this area is imperative.

The Salton Sea has no outlet. That is to say, whatever is added to the sea stays in the sea. As water evaporates, salinity, pesticides and other non-point source pollution remain within the sea. This has an accumulative effect resulting in an increasing saline content. The Pacific Ocean’s salinity is about 35 parts per thousand. In 1985 the Salton Sea’s salinity was around 40 ppt. It is currently near 45 ppt.

Oxygen molecules have a weaker bond with salt water than fresh water. Oxygen is necessary to sustain life. It is predicted that much of the life in the sea will stop reproducing at salinity levels approaching 60 ppt and a massive fish die-off will follow.

Some argue that the fish population of the Salton Sea is insignificant and unimportant. Although no species of the Salton Sea fish population are endangered of becoming extinct, a fish die-off would affect hundreds of thousands of birds, some of which are on the endangered list.

The task of revitalizing the sea has been given to a governmental agency the Salton Sea Authority. The Authority has proposed a plan to rejuvenate the sea. The plan would involve an in-sea barrier creating a two lake system. In the plan, water treatment facilities would be used to improve and control the water quality of the sea. Habitat enhancement features would be implemented to protect the delicate estuary. Recreational park and wildlife areas would be preserved.

The plan seems like a win-win situation for both wildlife and neighboring human inhabitants. One has to wonder as to why plan implementation is not moving forward. This question was posed to Authority Senior Administrator Analyst, Dan Cain.

“I don’t think you are ever going to please everybody . . . it’s kinda like trying to put 20 people in a room and order a pizza,” Cain said. “Because everyone wants something just a little bit different on it, and by the time you go all the way around the room, you go get hamburgers because you couldn’t decide on the pizza.”

With special interest groups for recreation betwixt and between environmentalists, and a lack of political leadership, agreements on sea utilization have not been made. As debate over sea utilization and revitalization continues, the future of the sea remains uncertain.

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