Document Details

Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project

Michael Cohen, Karen Hyun | May 1st, 2006

The Salton Sea lies on the brink of catastrophic change. The amount of water flowing into the Sea in the next twenty years will decrease by more than 40%, causing its surface elevation to drop by more than 20 feet, rapidly shrinking its volume by more than 60%, tripling its salinity, and exposing more than 100 square miles of dusty lakebed to the desert’s blowing winds. These changes will cause four major impacts:

  1. Human health in the Imperial and Coachella valleys – currently home to more than 400,000 people and growing quickly – will be harmed by the estimated 33% increase in the amount of fine windblown dust in the basin. The Imperial Valley already suffers from the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the state; the growing number of retirees living in both valleys are especially susceptible to poor air quality.
  2. Air quality in these two valleys – which already fails to meet state and federal air quality standards – would get much worse, increasing the cost of bringing these areas into compliance.
  3. Air quality-related litigation and state liability will increase. California has assumed ultimate responsibility for managing only those lands exposed due to a recent set of water transfers, constituting about half of the estimated 134 square miles exposed in 30 years. Responsibility for managing any dust blowing off the other 60 or so square miles will rest with the individual property owner. However, there is no clear way to determine which lands will be exposed due to the water transfers and which will be exposed due to other actions. Total air quality management costs at Owens Lake have exceeded $400 million. Costs at the Salton Sea could be higher.
  4. Many – if not most – of the hundreds of thousands of birds that currently use the Sea will lose their roosting and breeding habitats and their sources of food. The Sea’s fish will be almost entirely gone within a dozen years. Those birds that remain will suffer from disease and the reproductive deformities and failures that plagued the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge twenty years ago. Some of the endangered and threatened species that use the Sea may be able to find other habitats, but others could suffer significant population losses.

The tremendous scale of the Sea adds to its complexity, and the difficulty of finding a viable solution. The Sea currently runs almost 35 miles long, and 15 miles at its widest point, covering about 365 square miles. It has the largest surface area of any lake in California, yet is barely 50 feet at its deepest point. The Sea is 1/3 saltier than the ocean, and, fed by the fertilizers running off of neighboring fields, sustains incredible levels of biological productivity. Until recently, the amount of water entering the Sea was roughly balanced by the amount of water evaporating from its broad surface. Stabilizing the Sea at its current salinity would require the removal of more than four million tons of salt each year, assuming flows to the Sea do not change.

But they will change. Under a set of agreements signed in 2003, the Imperial Valley has begun to transfer water to San Diego County, ultimately reducing flows to the Salton Sea. Other actions, including actions in Mexico, will also reduce the amount of water flowing to the Sea, by 45% or more in the next 30-40 years. These changes will dramatically decrease the size of the Salton Sea and the quality of its water.

In September, 2003, the California legislature passed a set of laws that implement the 2003 water agreements and provide a 15-year reprieve for the Sea. The legislation offers the prospect of more than $300 million of restoration funds, but it does not guarantee a long-term restoration project for the Salton Sea. California’s Resources Agency will submit a Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Plan and related documents to the state legislature by December 31, 2006. The cost of any long-term restoration plan will almost certainly exceed a billion dollars. Although various private-public partnerships have been suggested, funding and implementation of any restoration plan is far from certain, especially given the lack of consensus on a preferred alternative.


agricultural drainage, Colorado River, ecosystem management, fugitive dust, risk assessment, Salton Sea, water quality