Saga of California's Salton Sea: a tragic chapter ahead?
Some worry that a water-diversion deal, sending farm irrigation water to sprawling San Diego, will spell doom for the Salton Sea – and exposure to toxins for humans and wildlife. Others say protections are in place to ensure that can't happen.
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Their big worry: that the body of water, created during a huge flood in 1905 in which distant Colorado River water coursed into a desert basin, will shrink much faster in coming years than it has been. As the shallow lake dries out, contaminants from decades of agricultural runoff – such as selenium and arsenic – will be exposed and, whipped by high winds, carried far afield, threatening the health of people and wildlife. Several species of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway will also be threatened, environmentalists warn.
Why are they expecting this accelerated shriveling of the Salton Sea? A big water diversion system is slated to transfer water now used locally for farming to the south, in San Diego County, for use by city-dwellers.
That ag runoff, plus whatever rainfall materializes, are what replenish the saline lake. If area farmers use less water, the reasoning goes, there will be less runoff into the Salton Sea, and it will shrink dramatically. Last month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to the water transfer plan.
“This is a ticking time bomb that without significant public intervention is going to cause major harm to public health and wildlife,” says Dan Taylor, executive director of California Audubon Society, which has been following the situation for years.
Of course, there's a plan to mitigate the loss of farm irrigation water that now goes to the San Diego County Water Authority. Money from the SDCWA will be used to pay farmers to leave some acres fallow, and some of the water that would have been used to irrigate those acres will instead be dedicated to filling Salton Sea.
The plan "fully mitigates" water the local irrigation district now will send to urban dwellers to the south, Halla Razak, Colorado River Program director for the SDCWA, told the Huffington Post recently. The overarching water transfer plan, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, is intended to reduce statewide dependence on water from the Colorado River.
But because the fallowing program is voluntary among farmers, some doubt it will yield enough water to prevent the Salton Sea from drying up – perhaps in a matter of years.
The Salton Sea is already in rough shape. Technically, it's a lake – California's largest. Because it has no outflow, concentrations of chemicals and salts have increased through the years, as has the lake's salinity. The problems have killed millions of fish and driven away most recreationalists and resort owners.