“The Salton Sea provides a haven for birds. It’s working for now, but it won’t work forever,” Shoneman explains. “Salt is the biggest problem — that and the threat that the Sea might dry up. If we lose the Sea, it’s not only a loss for birds; it’s a loss for people. We can’t write this place off as a wildlife destination. We can’t allow it to become one of the biggest human health hazards in the United States.”
The water that has sustained the Sea for more than a century begins 1,400 miles away in Colorado. As it flows through the arid Southwest, it provides a major source for power and irrigation for Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and Nevada. Just before crossing into Mexico, the remaining water in the Colorado River is diverted into the All-American Canal.
This massive irrigation channel, the largest in the world, shunts the water north toward vegetable fields in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. The runoff from those farms, in turn, flows into the Sea — roughly equaling what evaporates in the triple-digit temperatures.
That will soon change, though, because the allocation of Colorado River water is governed by the Colorado River Compact, and states in the river’s watershed and the suburbs of San Diego are clamoring for water. A series of agreements signed in 2003 will soon begin reducing California’s Colorado River allotment while also transferring water from the farms to the cities. That means less water will replenish the Salton Sea. And with the delicate water balance upset, the Sea will begin to recede.
A 2006 report by the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, California, estimates that the amount of water flowing into the Sea will decrease by 40 percent in 20 years, shrinking the Sea’s area by 60 percent and exposing more than 100 miles of a dusty lake bed to desert winds. Salinity could then triple or quadruple, killing off what’s left of the Sea’s fish and larger invertebrates. Within 30 years, today’s 50-foot-deep blue mirage could be a dense green, yellow, or orange algal soup a mere 14 feet deep. It would be full of cyanobacteria — far from dead — but it would be a very different lake.
Residents around Palm Springs are used to hearing about plans for saving the Salton Sea. The debate has been going on for decades, and the most recent plan is the 23rd since 1963.
In March 2007, the California Secretary for Resources recommended a “preferred alternative” that would girdle the Sea with a 52-mile-long rock jetty. This would create a horseshoe-shaped marine lake in the northern part of the Sea that could be used for recreation. In the southern area, near the wildlife refuge, 62,000 acres of “saline habitat,” or shallow pools, would provide food and refuge for birds. This plan would cost at least $6 billion and perhaps as much as $8.9 billion over 75 years, with $142 million in annual operating costs.
So far, the money has fallen way short: The federal government has appropriated $30 million for feasibility studies and pilot projects, and state voters approved another $47 million — but the state has yet to actually release the money.
For years, Rick Daniels has fought to get attention and money to save the Salton Sea. As executive director of the Salton Sea Authority — a coalition of local governments that also had help from several environmental and economic groups and two local Native American tribes — Daniels traveled up and down the Coachella valley, conducting more than 120 public information meetings to rally support for the Sea. He collected 10,000 signatures to take to the state capitol in Sacramento, where he pounded the legislative halls, trying to drum up funding.
“When you mention the word billions, people pause,” Daniels says. “Legislative aides ask, ‘Do you want to go down that path?’ To which I say, ‘We don’t have a choice.’?”
Daniels, a polished businessman, is not your stereotypical environmental activist. Before coming to the Salton Sea Authority, he spent three years at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, an economic-development group. And though Daniels recently left the Authority, he still speaks passionately about the Sea.
“It’s not an environmental issue; it’s an economic issue,” says Daniels, now the city manager of Desert Hot Springs, a booming town just north of Palm Springs, near the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park. “What are the two biggest threats to [the] Palm Springs region’s growth? Number one is the lack of higher education. Number two is the Salton Sea.
“If the Sea dies, the odors begin. If the water shrinks, the dust storms start. [The] beautiful Palm Springs air fills with dust. Dust creates health problems. Dust ruins [your] lifestyle,” Daniels says.
To demonstrate his point, he drives up to a promontory 1,500 feet above the Coachella Valley floor. To the north, a new high-end housing development, Sky Borne, has just opened. To the south, hundreds of wind turbines spin as air rushes through the Banning Pass.
“See that wind?” Daniels asks, motioning towards the turbines. “Eight months a year, it blows from the northwest, from Los Angeles. But four months a year, beginning in the fall, it blows from the southeast. Now look southeast. What do you see?”
First Palm Springs spreads across the landscape, then all the other towns, country clubs, tennis clubs, swimming pools, golf courses, and shopping destinations that have made this valley a world-class tourist mecca. Beyond that, a clear blue line on the horizon marks the northern shore of the Salton Sea.
“It’s not that far, is it?” Daniels says.