The Salton Sea – the New Mono Lake

Note – I did not take this photograph – this image was licensed from Shutterstock.

I recently posted about the challenges with restoring and protecting Mono Lake. While Mono Lake has been saved, it is still in peril. Turn back the Mono Lake “clock” to the early 1990s and you are looking at the current day Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is a stopover point for two-thirds of the bird species in the United States. Let that sink in for a moment. The Salton Sea is a stopover point for two-thirds of the bird species in the United States, including about 80% of the western USA’s white pelicans. Endangered species are also present at the sea – e.g., the brown pelican and Yuma clapper rail.

This salt water sea is California’s largest lake and lies in the Imperial Valley of Southern California, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from San Diego (it is just outside of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park).  Its elevation is -235 feet below sea level. That places it as the 10th lowest place on earth and the second lowest place in North America, second only to Death Valley National Park (-282 feet at Badwater), which is also in California. The average depth of the sea is about 30 feet. Its deepest point is about 50 feet.

The Sea is dying. Similar to what occurred with Mono Lake, water is being diverted to a major urban area – in this case, San Diego. The sea is fed from irrigation runoff in the Imperial Valley. Much of that water is being diverted to San Diego right now due to the drought. In 2017 a legal settlement (called the Quantitative Settlement Agreement) expires which will result in the diversion to San Diego of nearly a third of the sea’s inflow. Inflow into the sea is about equivalent to the evaporation rate. Diverting water will create many of the same problems that occurred at Mono Lake – lower lake levels and a corresponding massive increase in salinity, which will devastate the ecosystem just like at Mono Lake, directly impacting the food sources the migratory birds depend upon.

Furthermore, a reduced water level creates air quality issues. The shoreline is very dusty and high winds, which are prevalent in the area, push the dust towards residents in the area. Children in Imperial County are 3x more likely to have asthma than elsewhere in the USA. It’s not clear this is from the lake but the additional shoreline dust in the air certainly doesn’t help.

The Salton Sea Authority is the primary group working to save the sea.  More information on this issue can be found on their web-site, including ways to help. Another good source of information is the Salton Sea Science Office (SSSO), part of the US Geological Survey group. The SSSO provides scientific information to groups like the Salton Sea Authority to assist in restoration efforts.

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