California’s largest body of water is under threat. Inflows into the Salton Sea have decreased, salinity is increasing, the ecosystem is collapsing, and neighboring communities are suffering from high rates of respiratory illness, which many say is caused by pollutants in the dust blown from the exposed former seabed.
It is not possible to import enough water fast enough to save the ecosystem and mask the pollutants. The solutions must be more practical: fixing salinity will be key to saving this vital habitat. A targeted approach can also reduce dust.
After decades of neglect, a foreseeable problem has turned into an acute crisis. More salt flows in every year while the sea shrinks due to water transfer from agriculture to cities and years of drought in the west, making the ecosystem less habitable for the remaining wildlife.
The longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes to fix. California and the federal government must act now before it’s too late.
The state hired an independent review board a year ago to study ways to import water and restore the Salton Sea northeast of San Diego. We participated in the panel’s review process and agree with its recent conclusion that a zero water import approach would restore the ecosystem and reduce air pollution within a reasonable timeframe.
The sea should not be replenished. Instead, it should be allowed to reach its new equilibrium volume and height. When talking about California’s largest lake, a smaller Salton Sea still means a huge body of water. Saving the Salton Sea ecosystem is about reducing its salinity, not increasing its volume.
The panel rejected the idea of building a desalination plant on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and pumping purified seawater north to replenish the Salton Sea. Instead, a large desalination plant could be built right on the shore of the Salton Sea as part of the solution.
The plant would pull salty, polluted water out of the lake and return purified water. The brine runoff would be dried in evaporation ponds, and the dried salt—in large quantities at first until the sea became clearer—could be shipped to landfills by railroad cars and existing tracks.
Over time, the sea would reach a new equilibrium of salinity at sea level, suitable for fish and birds. As other sources of water in Southern California disappeared in recent decades, the sea became an important stop on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds and a year-round home for others. More than 400 bird species have been found in the sea, and 46 of these enjoy some level of state or federal protection. They are endangered today because of the collapsing sea food web, but they could thrive once it is restored. So could fishing and other recreational activities.
The desalination plant would have to be large—twice the size of the Carlsbad desalination plant. A facility of this size is needed to save the remaining marine life and reduce the salinity of the water over time. The state should immediately start planning and approving such a facility.
California also needs to secure water each year to compensate for water lost from the desalination process. This could be acquired through a voluntary compensated set-aside program in the nearby Imperial Irrigation District. In addition to paying farmers for fallow fields and dumping their irrigation water into the sea, the state would compensate the Imperial County Irrigation District, farm workers and farms harmed by fallow fields. Expensive, yes, but it would solve a centuries-old water problem.
Crucially, this combination of desalination and voluntary closure could be operational as early as 2033, with steady improvement and sea-level salinity reached less than 20 years later. The panel noted that the proposal to take water from the Pacific would not provide purified water until 2045 at the earliest.
However, a smaller Salton Sea will result in a larger playa as the exposed former seabed is known locally. Projects are already underway to stabilize the playa and reduce wind dust. The state announced a plan in 2017 to minimize dust and restore habitat to nearly 30,000 acres near the Salton Sea. The state needs to be more aggressive in funding these projects.
Like the rest of the judging panel, we believe that the ecology of the sea can be restored. Its altitude can be stabilized with its salinity close to the ocean salinity, and the risk of dust pollution of the playa can be greatly reduced. A robust program can revitalize opportunities for the tourism economy and protect human health. The sea can again be a paradise for birds and a tourist destination, not an imminent disaster.
Brent M. Haddad, Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, is the author of Rivers of Gold: Designing Markets to Allocate Water in California. Robert Glennon, Law Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, is the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-10-06/restore-salton-sea-desalination-ecosystem-birds Op-Ed: Restore the Salton Sea not to its former size but to its role in the ecosystem