Toxic CA Lake Requires Federal Government Funding to Save It

By: Georgia | Published: Dec 27, 2023

The Salton Sea, California’s largest inland lake, presents a significant environmental crisis. Located near popular destinations like Palm Springs, this lake epitomizes a complex ecological disaster.

For years, it has captured public attention not only for its size but also for the looming threats it poses to the surrounding areas and the state’s environmental stability.

The Dual Nature of the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a unique ecological entity, serving as both a crucial habitat for endangered species and a basin for agricultural runoff.

A wide-angle view of the Salton Sea under a bright blue sky scattered with puffy white clouds

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This juxtaposition has led to severe environmental issues, contributing to some of the worst air quality in the United States. The lake’s deteriorating condition is not only an ecological concern but also a public health issue, as evidenced by high asthma rates in nearby communities.


Wildlife and Water Quality: A Delicate Balance

At the Salton Sea, environmental challenges manifest in various forms. The lake is home to the desert pupfish, a species resilient to extreme conditions, yet its survival is threatened by the lake’s declining health.

A close-up underwater photograph of two desert pupfish, with the prominent one displaying a shimmering blue body and radiant yellow tail fin. The fish's scales glisten with iridescent hues of blue and gold

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The sea’s hypersaline waters, coupled with eutrophication, a process that leads to so much plant overgrowth, pose significant risks to the aquatic ecosystem, highlighting the delicate balance between maintaining biodiversity and addressing environmental degradation.

Air Quality and Health Concerns

The Salton Sea’s impact extends beyond its shores, particularly affecting air quality in the region. Studies show a direct correlation between the sea’s receding shoreline and rising asthma cases among children in nearby areas.

A young girl is being administered an asthma treatment by a healthcare professional. The girl, with light brown hair and a gray shirt, inhales medication from a handheld nebulizer

Source: Gustavo Fring/Unsplash

This public health concern is exacerbated by the toxic dust particles emitted from the lake, containing harmful substances like arsenic, selenium, and pesticides.

The Environmental and Economic Risks

The Salton Sea Authority, which includes Imperial Irrigation District officials and council members from the nation of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, have expressed grave concerns about the future if no action is taken.

Salton Sea with the water's surface mirroring the vast sky above. The sky is a deep blue with wisps of white clouds, and a few birds can be seen flying in the distance

Source: Wikimedia Commons

They warn that without intervention, “the agriculture of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys will be ruined and the economy … will become nonexistent.”

Federal Intervention and Restoration Efforts

In response to the escalating crisis, the federal government, under the Biden-Harris administration, has allocated $70 million toward the Salton Sea’s restoration.

A weathered white and blue boat, with the name "Auto Bote Bombay" on its side, lies abandoned on the cracked, dry soil of the Salton Sea bed. The scene is desolate, with a vast expanse of white salt flats stretching towards the water in the distance

Source: Greg Bulla/Unsplash

This funding is part of a broader initiative to address the ecological challenges faced by the lake, aiming to mitigate the disaster before it worsens further.


Expert Skepticism on the Restoration Plan

Despite these efforts, experts remain skeptical about the effectiveness of the intervention.

An aerial photograph captures a winding road cutting through the rugged, eroded canyons of a dry landscape near the Salton Sea

Source: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

They highlight the uncertainty surrounding these restoration efforts, questioning whether they will indeed lead to the desired outcomes.


Bureaucratic Challenges and Mismanagement

Reports from UC Riverside have pointed out significant bureaucratic challenges in managing the Salton Sea’s restoration.

A close-up view of towering stacks of documents and folders on an office desk, showcasing an assortment of white and yellow papers with colorful sticky notes and tabs poking out

Source: Wesley Tingey/Unsplash

They cite “mismanagement and competition” between various agencies, which have led to delays and inefficiencies in addressing the lake’s environmental problems.


The Human Aspect of the Crisis

The Salton Sea crisis is not just an ecological issue but also a human one. David Lo, a professor at UCR, in a conversation with SFGATE, emphasizes the impact on local communities, particularly those living near the lake.

A photograph of a dilapidated building overrun by desert flora under a clear blue sky

Source: DesignClass/Unsplash

He highlights the pressing need to address not only the environmental aspects but also the human health concerns arising from the crisis.


A Global Trend of Shrinking Lakes

The situation at the Salton Sea is reflective of a larger global issue of shrinking lakes, exacerbated by climate change and water diversion.

Aerial view of the Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River curves around a large rock formation creating a horseshoe-like shape. The river's striking emerald green waters contrast with the warm orange and brown tones of the canyon walls

Source: Sean Benesh/Unsplash

In a 2022 article, the University of California Riverside wrote that terminal lakes are shrinking all over the world due to global warming and water diversion — the Colorado River Basin drought has been affecting lakes across the southwest.   The Salton Sea serves as a critical case study in understanding and responding to these widespread environmental challenges.


Regional Efforts and Broader Implications

In light of the Salton Sea’s deteriorating condition, California, Nevada, and Arizona have undertaken efforts to conserve water, aiming to avert an ecological crisis.

A striking view of the Glen Canyon Dam, with its massive concrete arch-gravity structure holding back the deep blue waters of Lake Powell. The dam is set against a dramatic landscape of orange and red sandstone cliffs under a partly cloudy sky

Source: David Lusvardi/Unsplash

The federal funding allocated to the Salton Sea is a part of these broader efforts, reflecting the urgent need to address environmental issues that have far-reaching implications.


The Uncertain Future of the Salton Sea

Despite ongoing efforts, the future of the Salton Sea remains uncertain. Speaking to SFGATE, David Lo stresses the importance of collaboration and research in finding solutions, saying, “The question is going to be: Are people going to talk to each other and do the research and come to some kind of consensus of like, what needs to be done?”

An aerial satellite image capturing the Salton Sea, a large, dark blue body of water in the midst of sandy desert terrain. Adjacent to the sea are patches of green agricultural fields forming a stark geometric contrast to the natural landscapes

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The fate of the Salton Sea continues to be a critical concern for environmentalists, policymakers, and local communities alike.