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The Problems Of The Salton Sea Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 4628 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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An iconic feature in the California desert, the Salton Sea stands as a testament to the human element. What started as a manmade disaster has become an integral part of the local and global ecosystems sustaining marine life and providing a much needed stop along the Pacific Flyway. During the 1950’s and 60’s the Salton Sea was considered the California Riviera as its shores were filled with recreation goers and celebrities. However, the Salton Sea is no longer the desert paradise it once was. In fact in many ways it is becoming a liability. The increasing salinity, along with the unsustainable inflows of water has forced difficult questions be answered. The crux of the discussion is what should be done with the Salton Sea? While some believe the Sea should be left to nature, other believe the Sea needs to be sustained and restored. In 2003 California passed SB 277 The Salton Sea Restoration Act, which is mean to restore the Salton Sea using the best option. While this sounds ideal, there are many complex issues facing the Sea, many of which have substantial economic ramifications. However, a restoration plan is underway which will address the major issues, offering a glimmer of hope for an ecosystem teetering on the edge of collapse.

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Sparkling in the California desert the Salton Sea stands as a testament to the human element. What started as a manmade disaster has become an integral part of the local ecosystem, sustaining marine life and providing a much needed stop along the pacific flyway. However, since its creation this resource has developed into a challenge, one that concerns many yet is thought of by few.

Proposals have run the spectrum from doing nothing to creating an inland

sea part via canal to the Gulf of California. Recently legislation was passed to formally answer the questions surrounding the Sea. This policy analysis will focus on one particular piece of legislation, SB 277, the Salton Sea Restoration Act of 2003, and will systematically examine SB 277’s successes, failures, and interactions. Like all issues, the circumstances surrounding the Salton Sea are very complex, and rely heavily on understanding the challenges, history and significance.


Surface water, in the Imperial Valley is not a recent occurrence. During prehistoric times, the Gulf of California extended up to the present Coachella Valley. It is believed that over time silt deposits from the Colorado River slowly formed a marsh isolating a northern inland sea. Eventually this sea evaporated leaving behind a vast salt deposit and revealing the Salton Sink. It is further believed that since then, the Colorado River has changed course many times filling the Salton Sink with water and sediment. This cycle of flooding resulted in the elevation of the valley floor along with the deposition of fertile soil.

While there is significant evidence of river oscillation and prehistoric seas and lakes, western history has little documented firsthand accounts about an inland sea (MacDougal, 1917, p. 458). Instead, most records report an inhospitable desert; one that holds the souls of man and beast (Kennan, 1917, p. 13) searching for an alternate route to the California gold fields. And while many of these travelers saw the Imperial Valley as a wasteland, some saw great agricultural potential. At the turn of century a great irrigation project was planned and implemented diverting water from the Colorado River for use in the Imperial Valley. It was an ambitious plan that looked to payout big for the parties involved. There was however one issue that was not accounted for, silt. Once in the canal system the suspended silt settled, causing obstructions and reducing volume. Many ideas were tried to remove the silt, however none proved worth while. It was determined that the only way more water could be delivered was by creating another diversion point on the Colorado River.

After studying the river’s path, rainfall and flows a new headgate was installed and completed in 1905. However, this would prove to be an exceptional year as rainfall reached 26.6 inches, as apposed to the historic average of 8-10 inches(Henry, 1907, p. 245). Soon the river had breached the new headgate diverting the entire Colorado River into the Salton Sink for a period of about two years. After containing the Colorado River the largest lake in California had been crated stretching over 35 miles in length. This disaster displaced residents and destroyed crops, but once the dust settled a treasure was revealed.

As the Imperial Valley grew the Salton Sea became an integral part of the valley and Southern California. In 1924 President Coolidge designated the Salton Sea as a permanent drainage reservoir, which was followed in 1930 by the designation of wildlife refuge (“Awash in History”, 2002). During World War II the Sea was used as a bombing area as well as an alternative commercial fishing area for coastal fishermen who were worried about German submarines (“Salton Sea Authority”, n.d.). After WWII the Salton Sea became a recreational paradise in the desert offering constant sunshine, warm water, open space, and exceptional sport fishing. During the 1950’s the Salton Sea contained Covina, Sargo, and Croaker which provided recreation for people and food for wildlife. The Salton Sea was truly a jewel in the desert; and times were good as developers built commercial and residential structures (Pearce, 2003, p. 48). However, this golden age would be short lived as floods and environmental concerns damaged property and drove visitors away. Eventually construction stopped, towns were abandoned, and wildlife started to die.


It is understood that the Salton Sea is in trouble. Salinity is steadily rising, wildlife stress has increased, nutrient loads are exceptionally high, desire to divert inflow water to other areas is growing, and in 2018 inflow will significantly decrease under the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) (which will mainly be funded through fees on the transfer of water between the parties involved in the QSA. The cost to the state has yet to be determined, pending the report to be prepared by the Department of Food and Agriculture). While these facts are undisputed, a solution has yet to be implemented. And with the deadline approaching the urgency for action has increased, forcing answers to difficult and unique questions surrounding the Salton Sea. Yet even with extensive studies, consensus remains difficult.

The graph below illustrates the salinity of the Salton Sea. In 2017 with the diversion of water salinity is expected to rapidly increase, which will result in the disappearance of fish, and drastically change the Salton Sea’s ecosystem.


The attributes that created the Salton Sea are the same ones that have caused its degradation. The Salton Sea sits on a large salt deposit in a basin with a surface level of approximately 230 feet below sea level (“Journal of Geography”, 2009). This means that unlike most lakes which have an outflow, the Salton Sea only has inflow. As a result all of the compounds entering the lake remain after evaporation, which is approximately 5 feet a year. Also unlike the lakes which had previously been in the Salton Sink, the present Salton Sea is fed by manmade sources the majority being agricultural runoff, which has artificially prolonged the life of the Sea. The Salton Sea also sits atop the San Andreas Fault, and is surrounded by geothermal activity.

Significance to Southern California

Beyond the geology and geography, the Salton Sea plays a significant role in the global ecosystem. Before the development of Southern California there were many wetlands which provided stopping areas for migrating birds traveling the Pacific Flyway. As the human population grew the natural balance shifted. The Colorado River which used to have a lush delta area was siphoned off turning the once resource rich area into a desert. Along with this, many of the Southern California wetlands have been developed. While this development has affected the Southern California portion of the flyway, it is not alone, many of the historic stopping areas have been developed forcing the birds to either cohabitate or find less suitable accommodations.

For the migrating birds the Salton Sea is a true oasis in the desert with over 400 species of birds having been spotted, which is about half of the known North American species (“Salton Sea Authority”, n.d.). Many of which are listed as protected or endangered. The Sea offers birds a secluded resting place with an abundant food supply.

Protected Species Found in or Around the Salton Seaa


Federally Listed Species

California Listed Species


Desert Pupfish

Desert Pupfish



Razorback Sucker


Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle


California Brown Pelican

California Brown Pelican


California Least Tern

California Least Tern


Least Bell’s Vireo

Least Bell’s Vireo


Southwestern Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher


Yuma Clapper Rail

Yuma Clapper Rail






Arizona Bell’s Vireo



Bank Swallow



California Black Rail



Elf Owl



Gila Woodpecker



Gilded Northern Flicker



Golden Eagle



Greater Sandhill Crane



Peregrine Falcon



Swainson’s Hawk



Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo



White-tailed Kite


Source: Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR)

At onetime some believed the Salton Sea was the most productive fisheries in the world, while this is difficult to quantify it is apparent the sea holds lots of marine life. In the late 1960’s a California Fish and Game (CFG) study conducted at the Salton Sea predicted fish reproduction would cease when salinity reached 45 parts per thousand (ppt) with current salinity at 44 ppt (I. Haydock, Ph.D, personal communication, November 19, 2010). This prediction has proven true, as many fish species have disappeared from the Salton Sea, leaving tilapia and the desert pupfish.

Along with a rich mix of wildlife, the Salton Sea represents the human environmental impact. The Sea which is maintained by agricultural runoff can be seen as a testing ground for new environmental management ideas.

Social and Economic Factors

Like most issues, one of the most pressing factors facing the Salton Sea is economic based. The Imperial Valley which uses the Salton Sea as a runoff repository has an estimated agricultural production of over $1.6 billion (“California Farm Bureau Federation”, 2010). What makes the Sea an integral part of this is that the Colorado River water used for irrigation has a high salt content. According to the Imperial County Farm Bureau the amount of salt flushed into the Salton Sea is equal to 52,000 truck loads annually (“Imperial County Farm Bureau”, n.d.). If the salt were to be left in the soil it would be only a few years before crops would start to fail.

Aquaculture has also become dependant on the Sea. Aquaculture started during WWII and developed into a large market producing over 10 million pounds of fish a year (Rafferty, 1999, p. 1). More recently the focus of aquaculture has been on algae which not only cleans the water but can also be used to create biofuel.

The Sea is also host to ten geothermal power plants that produce a net output of approximately 327 megawatts of energy that is sold to Southern California Edison (“CalEnergy”, n.d.). While each of these industries are separate, they depend upon each other for survival. The farmers need to leach the salt of the soil, and in doing so maintains the Sea’s level. The geothermal power plants rely on the Sea’s water to power the steam generators for energy production. And the aquaculture industry relies on the heated water from the geothermal plants to promote growth among the fish and algae.

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Socially the Salton Sea has an equally important roll. While the shoreline towns have not seen a noticeable resurgence the Sea remains to be a large attraction. On any given day there are people camping, fishing, and relaxing along its shores. Beyond recreation, the current Sea is controlling what could be an ecologic disaster. If the Sea is allowed to dry up, contaminants could become airborne, adversely affect the lives of millions (Schwabe et al., 2008, p. 183). A similar affect was seen in Owens Valley when the Los Angels Department of Water and Power (LADWP) dried the valley, damaging the ecosystem and harming the inhabitants. While there are differences between the Owens Valley and the Salton Sea, the dangers are real and would potentially affect the entire southwest. Economically if the Sea is allowed to dry; it means all of the industries which rely on the Sea have now changed. For the Imperial and Coachella Valleys this could be disastrous.

C) A sea of contradictions:

It is often written that the Salton Sea is a “sea of contradictions”; it is both a haven for wildlife as well as hazard for resident fish, birds, and other creatures. Since the Sea terminal lake sustained by agricultural runoff, the inflows are both a blessing and a curse (Cohen, 1999, p. 15). The debate over how best to restore this fragile ecosystem is not new. The discussion of splitting the lake into a northern salinity managed lake and a southern brine pond, which is today the Salton Sea Authority’s preferred alternative, received serious attention as early as 1974 as the sulfide smell from the prolific algal bloom cycle and the subsequent fish die-offs began driving tourists away from the Sea.

D) Policy Issue

The existing issues surrounding the Salton Sea are about to reach a tipping point forcing decisions be made. If nothing gets done in the near future, the sea is predicted to slowly evaporate, and a new set of issues will be presented. A major obstacle is funding. In addition, the final cost is difficult to estimate because of the complexity of this issue.

Currently there has been little direction provided by the legislature with regards to implementation program including timeline. While a preferred restoration plan was scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2006, questions remain, and action has not been taken. The legislature only authorized the State to move forward with what has been proposed as the Salton Sea Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project. The legislature needs to give authority to the State to move forward with a restoration program.

The State has proposed a restoration plan which is similar to the Salton Sea Authority’s initial proposal. The federal government has also come up with similar results. Because inflow will be reduced all of the plans are partial lake restorations. In December of 2007 the US Bureau of Reclamation issued the Restoration of the salton sea final report December 2007 in which the costs for the different plans was laid out. For the partial lake restoration plans the estimated costs ranged from $9.2 billion to $14 billion in construction costs (US Bureau of Reclamation, 2007, p. 7-2). In this plan the Sea is divided into two main sections, each containing multiple zones. The north half of the Sea would be for recreation with the south half being for rehabilitation and habitat. By decreasing the body of water by half, only a portion of the present inflow will be needed to sustain constant levels. Water would then be circulated in a clockwise direction and filtered through the marsh/habitat where it will be filtered. Throughout the waters path there will be treatment plants as well as pumping stations which will maintain circulation (“Salton Sea Authority”, n.d.).

This plan also takes into consideration the many different industries that rely on the Sea. The geothermal plants will still have access to water, and wildlife will still have plenty of places to rest while migrating. However, there are many challenges that need to be overcome, one being the projected costs. While this plan offers a contained solution to the problem, the effectiveness and costs are not certain.

Below is a map of the partial sea plan from the Salton Sea Authority.

The Department of Fish and Game is moving forward with this plan as a stop gap measure before a final plan is approved.

Salton Sean Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project

SB 277 has strengthened the foundation, however, it does not consider the size and time for the sea restoration project. Currently the proposed Salton Sea Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project size once totally build-out is expected to be approximately 2,400 acres, however, construction time and costs are dependant on the acquisition of land (Salton Sea Update, September 2010).

In compliance with CEQA the California Natural Resources Agency is in the process of conducting an EIR for the SCH Project. Also because the SCH Project involves both State and Federal actions, a joint EIS/EIR will be prepared by DFG, under the direction of the Natural Resources Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) pursuant to CEQA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This joint document is being prepared to optimize efficiency and avoid duplication and is intended to be sufficient in scope to address both the Federal and State requirements. For the purposes of the EIS/EIR, the State is to develop conservation practices that will protect the Sea’s wildlife in accordance with Section 2932 of the fish and game code, manage the issuance potential of incidental take authorization under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) California, Section 2081, and oversee the Streambed Alteration Agreement under California Fish and Game Code, Section 1602. The US Federal Government may issue permits to regulate discharge into bodies of water, which include streams, lakes, marshes, and rivers [State of California, Natural Resources Agency, June 21, 2010, Notice of Preparation (NOP) of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (EIS/EIR)].

Role of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy has an important role in the sea restoration process. It implements the written laws and rules while providing procedures on how to implement the restoration. However, the involvement of the many stockholders, bureaucratic red tape and lack of consensus has hampered progress.

Size: Due to the high number of organizations and entities involve within the process, it is almost impossible to monitor everyone and every group.

Ability of bureaucrats: The people who administer the policy have vast quantities of information to process with limited staff.

In 1998 Congress enacted the Salton Sea Reclamation Act. However, policy implementation details were not established. So in 2003 California passed SB 277 which assumed authority by California to work out the specifics. Presently California is working with the Federal government and other agencies in a Joint Powers Authority.

Ethical Issues

SB 277 is difficult because no matter what is decided there will be adverse affects. If after the studies have been conducted it is determined that fields will need to be fallowed, then the local economy potentially suffers. However, if current flows are maintained SDCWA, CVWD, and MWD will not have enough water to meet growing demand. Conversely if inflow is allowed to decrease there is the potential that wildlife could be adversely affected.

The Salton Sea also represents an ethical dilemma, is restoring the Sea the best use of public funds? This question becomes particularly salient as the nation is facing economic difficulties. After looking at the alternatives, it becomes apparent that in the case of the Salton Sea restoration is in fact in the best interests of the state and nation.

International Relations

SB 277 does no directly mention any foreign nations; however, the results of SB 277 will have a direct consequence to both Mexico and Canada. As discussed earlier two of the major inflow sources originate in Mexico. And although California cannot require Mexico’s compliance, it would be reasonable to request Mexico’s support in cleaning up the New and Alamo rivers. Currently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working with the Mexican government to improve the water quality of the New River by installing waste water treatments plants, expending over $40 million dollars in Mexicali wastewater projects (“Environmental Protection Agency”, 2010). This not only cleans the water flowing into the Sea, but it also provides Mexicali with a new source of potable water.

Less directly the Salton Sea plays a global roll in providing a resting area for migrating birds. With most of the historic wetlands destroyed, the Salton Sea is the only resting area in the region. The exact affect of loosing the Sea is not known, however, it is agreed such a loss would damage bird populations. The ripple affect of this could be devastating as entire industries and ecosystems are based on the migration of birds. As we have witnessed in other cases, the removal of one or multiple species from an ecosystem can compromise the entire system.

Successes and Failures

Seven years after the enactment of SB 277 the Salton Sea has seen little change. At a recent Salton Sea symposium many ideas were presented on how to mange the Sea however no action had been taken. There was however, one item of consensus, which was that action needed to be taken immediately (Gottberg, 2010). So has SB 277 succeeded or failed? On many counts SB 277 has succeeded, it provided funding for studies which have developed solid solutions, and it has provided a way to fund these programs through the sale of water.

While SB 277 has succeeded on many counts it has also failed. In Section 1 Chapter 13 of the Fish and Game Code it states “Implementation of the preferred Salton Sea restoration alternative” (SB 277, 2003). SB 277 transfers the burden of the Salton Sea from the Federal government to the state. While this transfer might have made action easier, a recent Superior Court ruling found the QSA JPA violated the California Constitution (Imperial Irrigation District FAQ, 2010). A key point being the state committed to taking on an unacceptable amount of debt.

The QSA formally acknowledged the State of California’s intent to undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea. Requiring the California Natural Resources Agency develop an ecosystem restoration program for the Salton Sea.

After a very long and publicly transparent process, the Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program Preferred Alternative Report and Funding Plan were presented to the California State Legislature by the California Secretary of Natural Resources on May 2007.

To date, the Legislature has not acted on the preferred alternative for the Salton Sea Restoration; however, it has appropriated funding to begin work on the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project.

The State has begun the environmental analysis and engineering design of the SCH project, consistent with the “early start” habitat recommendations of the Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Programmatic (PEIR). In which the California Natural Resources Agency is serving as the lead agency for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance.

The need for California to implement the SCH project is driven by the environmental problems that exist within the watershed. Problems that are quickly reaching crisis levels and will be exacerbated by reduced inflows after 2017, the Salton Sea’s salinity levels continue to increase and are expected to exceed the tolerance of most fish species in the sea by 2018. These fish are critical to support many fish-eating birds that are dependent on the Salton Sea.


In trying to decipher SB 277 it is necessary to consider the many interactions. The idea of SB 277 is to restore the Salton Sea, by: funding studies, implement conservation measures, administer the restoration and management, develop funding, assess IID fallowing programs, and work with federal, state, and local agencies, while working within the QSA agreement. On paper this Act is brief, but in content it is potentially massive. It is our belief that because SB 277 is so encompassing, it fails to fully achieve its goals. After studying SB 277 we recommend the following.

The first suggestion would be to install dated milestones. Presently under the QSA 2018 is the tipping point for the Salton Sea. SB 277 outlines objectives yet offers little direction as to how and when plans and projects should be implemented. By creating deadlines parties will be forced to reach a consensus.

The Second suggestion is to have SB 277 create a high level agency to manage the Salton Sea. By creating a separate agency to conduct research and implement plans there would be greater accountability with greater coordination. This agency would need the support of the state, local, and federal government, because of the complexity and involvement of many organizations.

Thirdly, the land below and around the Salton Sea needs to be unified. Currently the Sea rests on private, state, federal, and tribal lands. This fractured ownership has created too many parties which need to agree. In the case of the Salton Sea it would be reasonable to have the state government unify ownership creating a single voice.

Most importantly SB 277 needs to create a sense of urgency in finding and implementing a solution. For many years there have been study after study done, however, little to no action has been taken. In the meantime the deadline for action is approaching while the discussion remains on what to do. Urgency and cooperation needs to be taken up by the involved parties so a fully supported plan can move forward.


The Salton Sea is presently at crossroads. Some believe the Sea should be allowed to dry up, yet others believe the entire lake should be maintained via circulation with the Gulf of California, but everyone believes a decision needs to be made. This paper has examined SB 277 the Salton Sea Restoration Act, which was intended to provide sustainable solutions to the many challenges. However, as shown, little action has been taken. If the Salton Sea is to be rehabilitated, it will require a concerted effort by all interested parties. To further complicate the restoration effort, in September of 2010 Governor Schwarzenegger singed SB 51 a bill proposed by Senator Ducheny creating the Salton Sea Restoration Council, which will be the State’s new lead agency in the restoration process, and is in with the Salton Sea Authority. This development has created new uncertainties, and will be interesting to follow.


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