As the #SaltonSea shrinks, it leaves behind a toxic reminder of the cost of making a desert bloom — Food & Environment Reporting Network

Aerial view of the Salton Sea from the north-northeast (from over Joshua Tree National Park), looking into the early afternoon sun. Photo credit: Dicklyon via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an in-depth report from Lindsay Fendt that’s running on the Food & Environment Reporting Network website. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Now the Salton Sea has another problem: Climate change is making this dry region even drier. And a growing demand for water in the booming cities and suburbs of Southern California has reduced the amount of Colorado River water diverted to nearby farms. In the coming years these two factors are expected to dramatically increase the pace at which the lake shrinks, exposing more lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud.

The desert winds lift dust from the lakebed, and scientists fear that eventually the toxic residue of more than a century of agricultural runoff will be blown into the air — and into the lungs of residents. The area surrounding the Salton Sea already has some of the worst air quality in the country, caused by particulate matter swept up from farms and the desert. Local residents have some of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory problems in the state, and public health officials say the heavy metals and chemicals in the lake bed pose an even greater threat…

It seems unnatural, the shimmering water surrounded by chalky sand and cactus. But water has found its way into this desert basin repeatedly throughout history. Before dams and other diversion structures fixed the Colorado River on its current path, the river used to periodically migrate across the floodplain, changing course to circumvent sediment that had built up in previous seasons. Sometimes it emptied here in the Salton Sink. During one such period, the river sustained an even larger lake, Lake Cahuilla, that stretched from the Coachella Valley, up by Palm Springs, all the way to northern Mexico.

We fly near the Chocolate Mountains that rise up south of the Salton Sea, and Ruiz points to a discolored line high on one of the ridges where a thousand years ago lake water once reached.

“If you talk to anyone from the Cahuilla tribe, the people who have been in this basin forever, they say water has always been here,” Ruiz said. “So this isn’t just about saving some artificial lake.”

Lake Cahuilla dried up sometime in the 16th century after the river again shifted course, this time to the Gulf of California. Dams have tamed the river’s meandering, and it’s unlikely the Colorado will ever find its way into the Salton Sink again. Yet the river’s water is still coming, diverted into the desert via the 80-mile-long All-American Canal.

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