Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

California's Largest Lake Is Drying Up Amid Epic Drought

Climate

The Salton Sea, a huge, shallow manmade lake located in the Sonoran Desert in California's Imperial and Coachella valleys, has had problems for years. Its increasing saltiness has killed off most of its once-abundant fish species. Its shrinking water level has caused a reduction in water available for agricultural use, along with many dramatic photos of exposed lakebed and abandoned towns that were once seaside resorts. While the sea is no longer a resort destination for Hollywood celebrities as it was in the ’50s and ’60s, it's still a playground for birds, with more than 400 species living along its shores or migrating through the area. But those populations could also be in jeopardy if its waters continue to recede.

Dead trees at Salton Sea in California.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

And that exposed lake bed is expected to grow, thanks to California's prolonged drought, now in its fourth year, and reductions in apportionment of water from the Colorado River which feeds the 360-square-mile sea. For many years, farmers in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley would take more than their allocation of Colorado River water, viewing water as an infinite resource. But with growing demand from other southwestern states, with their growing populations and their own stresses due to drought, they became less able to do do. And now the drought and state-mandated water reductions have increased competition for whatever water is available, putting the Salton Sea at risk.

And that's only the beginning of the problems that could be fueled by the sea's receding water level.

The shrinking of the Salton Sea has already caused many former seaside resorts to vanish.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

As the sea shrinks, it could cause significant health problems many miles away. The shrinkage exposes its particular type of soil, which is lighter than ordinary soil and more easily carried away by wind. The area is prone to high winds and dust storms. And because the lake also captures farm runoff, the dust is loaded with toxins such as arsenic, selenium, lead, zinc, chromium and even traces of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in 1972.

"These chemicals could attach themselves to the fine particles of sediment when the lake evaporates and could be breathed by people," said Tom Gill, geochemist for the air quality branch at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. "It could potentially be a health hazard."

A story about the Salton Sea published in the Washington Post this week highlighted that hazard.

"Dried lake bed, called playa, is lighter and flies farther than ordinary soil," it said. "Choking clouds of particulate matter driven by powerful desert winds could seed health problems for 650,000 people as far away as Los Angeles. The effects would be even worse along the lake, where communities already fail federal air-quality standards and suffer the highest asthma rates in the state."

Los Angeles is nearly 170 miles from the Salton Sea.

If the sea continues its current rate of shrinkage, an additional 100 miles of lake bed could be exposed, along with a huge amount of the toxins.

"California faces significant air quality and natural resources threats with the shrinking of the Salton Sea," wrote Gov. Jerry Brown in his latest budget proposal, which includes an allocation for a new Salton Sea Task Force to look at ways to remediate its problems.

"Prior comprehensive plans to restore the sea are no longer feasible due to cost and decreased water availability resulting from the drought in California and in the southwestern states," wrote Gov. Brown. "Working with partners and utilizing existing funds already appropriated, the construction of over 1,000 acres of habitat and dust abatement projects is scheduled to begin in 2015. In addition, the Administration has formed the Salton Sea Task Force with principals from the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agencies to develop new achievable medium and long‑term restoration plans. The Task Force will develop these plans in coordination with stakeholders, and will be appointing a new position using existing resources to lead the work of the Task Force and manage expedited construction of projects that protect both the wildlife habitat and air quality at the sea."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

4 Ways to Beat the California Drought and Save the Colorado River

9 States Report Record Low Snowpack Amid Epic Drought

​Why Desalination Can't Fix the Drought

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less
A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less
Left: Lemurs in Madagascar on March 30, 2017. Mathias Appel / Flickr. Right: A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. National Marine Fisheries Service

A new analysis by scientists at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that lemurs and the North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction.

Read More Show Less
Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular. Colin Dunn / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Julia Vergin

It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.

Read More Show Less
Data from a scientist measuring macroalgal communities in rocky shores in the Argentinean Patagonia would be added to the new system. Patricia Miloslavich / University of Delaware

Ocean scientists have been busy creating a global network to understand and measure changes in ocean life. The system will aggregate data from the oceans, climate and human activity to better inform sustainable marine management practices.

EcoWatch sat down with some of the scientists spearheading the collaboration to learn more.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Authors of a new study warned Thursday that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearing a level not seen in 15 million years. Dawn Ellner / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jessica Corbett

As a United Nations agency released new climate projections showing that the world is on track in the next five years to hit or surpass a key limit of the Paris agreement, authors of a new study warned Thursday that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearing a level not seen in 15 million years.

Read More Show Less