Tilapia carcasses rot along the shores of the Salton Sea. At 375 square miles, it’s the biggest lake in California. But since 2005, about 18 square miles of dry lakebed have been exposed, causing fish to die off and air quality to decline. An agreement that is set to expire in 2017 could make the situation much worse.
For many years, California was taking more than its fair share of water from the Colorado River. In 2003, the state made a pact with the other six states that rely on the Colorado River. California agreed to use less river water. California farmers who used that water for irrigation have felt the impact. More water is diverted to cities for urban use. That means less runoff into the Salton Sea. Until 2017, California water agencies must add water to the Salton Sea. When the agreement ends, the Salton Sea will shrink much faster.
The Salton Sea is only 110 years old. In 1900, California built a system of canals. Water from the Colorado River was directed to irrigate Salton Basin farmlands. But in 1905, floodwaters broke the system’s dams and levees. The Salton Basin was flooded, forming a body of water 45 miles long and 25 miles wide. Farms, a railroad, and salt mining operations were submerged. (That’s where the sea gets its name.) The flooding created a salt-water “sea.”
The water that runs into the Salton Sea doesn’t flow out. As it evaporates, the lake gets saltier. Some of the water that flows into the Salton Sea still comes from irrigation canals. As that water flows through farmland soil, it picks up millions of tons of salt and deposits it into the Salton Sea. This makes the Salton Sea far saltier than the ocean.
As more lakebed is exposed, the salty soil mixed with chemicals from farming will become airborne. This could cause an increase in asthma and other health problems. The Salton Sea is also an important stop for more than 400 types of migrating birds. And as the sea shrinks, more and more fish will die off.
In our fallen world, there is usually no perfect solution for problems we create through misuse and overuse of resources. But that doesn’t mean the Salton Sea problem can’t be mitigated. Experts have offered solutions including connecting the Salton Sea to the Gulf of California or creating a smaller but more sustainable Salton Sea that would support wildlife and birds while keeping dust down. Though expensive, adopting a solution now is a wiser use of resources than waiting until more damage occurs.