A Breakdown of the Sea’s Breakdown


What exactly will happen if the Salton Sea dries up is, of course, a mystery. But Doug Barnum and Lee Case of the U.S. Geological Survey Salton Sea Science have spent the better part of a decade trying to coordinate and vet the scientific predictions that have been made. Working from a second-floor office in a stucco-and-tile strip mall in affluent La Quinta, they’ve gathered enough preliminary scientific data to give everyone in the nearby golf communities and tennis clubs pause:

• As the sea’s surface area becomes smaller, the rotten-egg smell, which already forces Palm Springs–area residents to close their windows several days a year, will become more intense.

• Salinity will increase beyond the biological tolerance of most organisms resulting in the demise of a productive fishery that supports large numbers of migratory birds.

• Declining lake levels will expose bottom sediments to potential increases in wind erosion. Human health is a concern related to these potential increases. The Imperial Valley already suffers from the highest childhood asthma rate in the State.

• Windblown exposed lake-bottom sediments could drift onto crops potentially damaging the farm economies in both Imperial and Coachella Valleys.

• In 2006, the State of California estimated that the cost of the “no-action” alternative would be about $800 million (.8 billion) for construction and $48 million for annual operation and maintenance.

Adds Barnum, “Wait till the dust storms become a reality. … The options are bad, and worse.” Case, though, remains hopeful: “It’s important to look at the return and the timeline. If the Salton Sea were commercially viable, what would that mean for the people of this area? It might be worth it to save it.”