Sad, sad sea

One of the highlights and lowlights of my recent excursion in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys (Palm Springs and south) was a couple visits to the famous and infamous Salton Sea with its teeming and dying wildlife.

You probably noted the paradoxes! But they don’t end there: the salty Salton Sea was at first a freshwater lake. And it is surrounded by vacation resorts without vacationers.

My first glimpse of it this year was at sunset, which made it appear like liquid coral upon which hundreds of white pelicans (with strange-looking pre-nesting “horns” on their beaks), diving ducks, and grebes were bobbing and alertly looked for signs of tilapia fish just below the surface. Hundreds of shorebirds also waded in the shallows.  If you could ignore the odor, you could continue to entertain the notion that this was a pristine water wonderland. The odor was from furrows of dead tilapia on the beach—a beach composed not of sand but of barnacle shells and old fish bones. Those creatures had already met their doom at the hand of unseen killers: agricultural pollution, salinization, oxygen-depleting algae blooms, and deadly bacteria.

The Salton Sea is a young body of water that was formed in 1905-7 when the man-constricted Colorado River swollen by unusually heavy rains and melting mountain snow burst through dikes and flooded much of the valley region between Palm Springs and Mexico.  Efforts to stop the flow failed, and within a couple years, the sink reached its peak depth of some forty feet and covered around 500 square miles.  This was not the first time, however, that the mighty Colorado had flooded the basin.  Canyon walls show ancient shoreline marks far above the current level of the sea—now about 30 feet deep and under 400 square miles.  In fact, the Native Americans living there several hundred years ago were skilled fishermen.

So in two years, a dusty desert sink sported a great new lake—within an easy day’s drive of sprawling Los Angeles and a short hop from celebrity-rich Palm Springs.  By the fifties and early sixties, it was such a big attraction that annual vacationers at the Salton Sea outnumbered visitors to Yosemite!  It was a recreational heaven circled by resorts.  People were drawn there by the beauty of the setting, by a variety of water sports, by great tanning beaches (no cancer concern then), and by the millions of birds that used the lake for feeding and nesting as well as a migration rest stop.  Over 400 species of birds have been identified as users of the lake and the food and shelter resources surrounding the lake.  So this was a heavenly haven for birds and other wildlife as well—made more critical, in fact, since California had been busy draining and then building on most of its wetlands, the value of which was recognized too late

But the Salton Sea was also a great source of water for increasing agriculture and a handy drainage basin for runoff from industrial farming, spring runoff from the mountains, excess water from the desert cities to the north and multifarious gunk from a river running from the south out of Mexico.  The inevitable result of human abuse and overuse was a receding water level, increased salt concentrations, and pollution from fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.  Most of the artificially planted freshwater fish died off leaving the hardier tilapia to survive until the arrival of more pervasive threats.  Now they too are dying off in great numbers.

So the scene now is quiet and peaceful except for the sounds of pelicans and seagulls celebrating life without predators.  Almost all of the resorts are decaying hulks, boats are virtually absent, and the birds pretty much have it to themselves—taking in fish and other water creatures that contain poison in their bodies that will eventually weaken the immune systems and shorten the lives of the birds.  Another resource once thought too big to deplete is fast becoming our second Salt Lake.  Or, perhaps more accurately stated, our own Dead Sea.  The Salton Sea was created by and is now being destroyed by inept exercise of human power and poorly regulated industrial agriculture at the expense of the creation—in part so the entire nation can have sweet corn in May.  By 2050, it could be a dry lake bed composed of micro-fine (PM-10) and toxic dust ready to be lifted ton by ton on eastward traveling winds and deposited all over the United States—a more sinister version of Death Valley.

You can read more about it at the following links:

See you outdoors!