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Why an Unpopular Idea Could Be the Salton Sea’s Best Solution

A water pipeline plan dismissed years ago may not be an attractive option to save the beleaguered Salton Sea, but it may be the best way to buy the region more time.

Written by William L. Rukeyser Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
California shrinking lake
In this April 29, 2015 file photo oxygen-starved tilapia floats in a shallow Salton Sea bay near Niland, Calif. The sea is expected to evaporate at an accelerated pace starting next year when the San Diego region no longer diverts water to the desert region.AP/Gregory Bull, File

Take a highly mineralized, terminal lake that is below sea level and is shrinking because its traditional water sources are being diverted. Add the historic and environmental importance of the lake and decades of jealousy, grievance and distrust between countries in the vicinity. Then figure in the quenchless thirst of nearby agriculture and growing populations.

That is the recipe for a problem with no reasonable solution.

In the Middle East it is called the Dead Sea. In the Far West it’s the Salton Sea.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea. We have all seen pictures of swimmers who float far higher than normal because of the excessive salt in the lake.

But many people in the United States, indeed within a few hundred miles of the Salton Sea, are ignorant of it. The West is littered with more famous terminal lakes (ones without outflows). They include Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Mono Lake. Many are ancient or the remnants of prehistoric inland seas.

Not the Salton Sea, which sits in the California desert about 40 miles (65km) north of the border with Mexico. In its current form it is just over a century old and is actually a giant mistake. It became a monument to engineering arrogance when canal promoters accidentally diverted the Colorado River. They filled an ancient valley and created the “Sea.”

During most of the 20th century,the Salton Sea was a sump for highly mineralized agricultural runoff that often carried excess fertilizer and other chemicals. You do not want to stand downwind of the lake. Especially when there is a fish die-off.

It sounds like a lake no one could love and no one would want to save. As the water evaporates, that which is noxious becomes more concentrated. What flows into the Salton, stays in the Salton.

So, why should anyone care? Because the lake became, by default, an ecologically important place. Most of California’s wetlands were lost to development or agriculture. Its intermittent lakes (like Tulare in central California) disappeared. And the Salton Sea became an important migratory bird stop along the Pacific Flyway. In addition, were the Salton to dry up, it would set loose clouds of noxious dust on Southern California.

In this April 29, 2015 picture, birds take flight from the Salton Sea near Niland, Calif. Located on what is called the “Pacific flyway,” heavy migrations of waterfowl, marsh and seabirds take advantage of the Salton Sea during spring and fall. For them, the lake is a desert oasis from vast stretches of rock and sand. (AP/Gregory Bull)

Over the past couple of decades a number of imaginative (and expensive) proposals have been made to save large portions of the lake. As agricultural runoff has become more valuable for competing interests, and as sources of funding have evaporated faster than puddles in the desert, these proposals have disappeared like mirages.

So is a solution, even a limited time solution, possible?

The situation in California is not unlike the one facing the Dead Sea. Seemingly against all odds, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians have agreed on the Red-Dead pipeline. It is an ambitious plan to take water from the Red Sea and use it for hydroelectric power, desalinization and replenishment of the shrinking Dead Sea. It may yet be built.

When I worked for the California Environmental Protection Agency and, later for the State Water Board and mentioned the Red-Dead as a potential model for a Cal-Sal pipeline (using seawater from the Gulf of California), the reaction among experts was that the other plans were more realistic and reasonable. They also pointed out, quite logically, that a Cal-Sal project would take international negotiations, and that Mexico harbors decades of resentment over the U.S.’s use of Colorado River water. Before we built dams and diversions, the Colorado emptied into the Gulf (otherwise known as the Sea of Cortez) and now it no longer reaches the sea.

Perhaps it is time to revisit what previously appeared to be an unrealistic fantasy. When all else fails, what remains may be the answer.

The pluses are the inexhaustible supply of water and tides that would help propel the seawater on its way downhill to the Salton Sea. Since there is a drop of 220 feet, most of the conveyance could be accomplished by gravity or siphon (much like L.A.’s aqueduct from the Owens Valley). With sea levels rising because of climate change, the differential might be even more advantageous later in this century.

The objections are many, but could, potentially, be dealt with. Among them, the Sea of Cortez is rich in biodiversity, and the intake would have to be carefully designed and continuously monitored to assure species were not harmed. The international negotiations would be difficult and might prove impossible. The Trump administration’s attitudes toward both the environment and California might mean that no progress could be made until 2021.

Lastly, and most importantly, the salt content of seawater dictates that a simple transfer from sea to lake could only produce a benefit for a portion of this century. True, seawater may initially be sweeter than lake water, but every ton of salt transferred to the Salton Sea will stay there when the water evaporates.

The Cal-Sal proposal is not an attractive one, but it may be the least-bad remaining chance to buy the Salton Sea some time.

Who knows what may change by 2075 or 2100? The policy and political will for another solution may have developed. Climate change may have produced results we can’t even imagine today. The cost and energy required to desalinate may have dropped dramatically resulting in a seawater transfer actually becoming a sustainable project.

The only thing that is clear is that the more attractive proposals appear to be dead in the water, and the water is drying at an alarming rate.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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