Troubled Waters

By Tommy Purvis

Posted September 22, 2011 in Feature Story

A look into the murky depths of the Salton Sea reveals equal parts the folly of man and the simple rules of nature. The grossly polluted inland waters located at the southern end of the Coachella Valley have been fed for most of the past century from nutrient rich irrigation run-off that drains from the largest canal system on Earth. For decades a river of raw sewage cut with factory wastewater from Mexico was the only source of fresh water to reach the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide agricultural wastewater reservoir. The hydroponic brew stirred up by summer winds creates a plankton bloom that looks like a giant lily pad from high above.

The bloom leads to the de-oxygenation of the water and results in the massive fish kills, the bird die-offs that follow and a harsh nasal burning stench.

And as if things weren’t bad enough—they may get worse.

International water politics are about to create a situation that will wreak far more havoc to local birdlife, the family farmers that live south of the international border and the most poverty-stricken and affluent zip codes in the IE. The lead agency in charge of an expensive and shortsighted redevelopment plan to restore the doomed sea has been in a power grab with Sacramento for funds that dried up along with the troubled waters.

In the meantime, nothing is being done to curb the impending calamity that could devastate the bi-national corridor that provides crops on both sides of the international boundary.

Toxic Topsoil

In the next several years water demands will shrink the Salton Sea to half of its current size. The increasingly salty waters that are left behind will kill the last remaining species of fish. The collapse of the ecosystem will shortly follow. In the process an expanding series of salt flats will form as the shorelines recedes to expose toxic topsoil laced with selenium to the constant desert wind. High levels of selenium—a chemical element often compared to sulfur that has been linked to prostate cancer in clinical studies—is a by product of the fertilizers used in the nearby agricultural fields.

The amount of the toxin in the fish led the Imperial County Board of Health to issue an advisory in the 1980s to limit the consumption of fish from the sea to no more than four ounces in a two-week period.

The plan to reduce water flow into the arid bi-national water basin led the Audubon Society to call the emerging issues at the Salton Sea an environmental Chernobyl. Avian experts estimate that half of the migratory birds in the nation depend on the fragile ecosystem for food and rest on the Pacific Flyway that extends from Alaska to Patagonia.

Dust storms already blow across the playa to threaten half a million acres of crops that grow in the region known as the winter salad bowl of America for the vegetables grown in cold months.

The Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on the southeast perimeter of the troubled water also faces threats from the toxic dust storms along with numerous small towns where migrant farm workers and their families live.

The Clock is Ticking

The New Salton Sea Governance Bill was introduced by V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella) to the State Assembly in February. The bill (AB 939) is the latest in an ongoing effort by the Salton Sea Authority (SSA) to push the North Lake restoration plan. The movement forward for the costly, shortsighted plan was made more difficult after Gov. Jerry Brown de-funded out-of-control redevelopment agencies to help balance California’s budget. The bill would transfer the mandate and responsibilities of the Salton Sea Restoration Council—a state agency—to the SSA—made up of local officials—in a move that allows the agency to apply for funds down the road when the economic turmoil settles.

“Salton Sea restoration is a longstanding issue for the region, and the clock is ticking,” said Pérez, in a press release late last month. “The longer we wait, the greater the risk to our local public health, the environment and the economy. Given the budget recommendation to delay the Council for one year and the governor’s proposal to eliminate it, this bill seeks to directly empower local entities to pursue local options and explore local revenue streams, so we can start restoration efforts that are so critically needed.”

The SSA, a joint authority redevelopment agency formed in the mid ’90s, is made up of officials from Riverside and Imperial counties, the Imperial Irrigation District (along with the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians) and a host of other local and state agencies with vested interests in the sea’s welfare. The most expensive part of the $8.5 billion plan would be used to build a massive dike to split the sea in two and create a 50-foot-high levy around the perimeter of the sea. The dry land would become a landfill for salt and other toxins removed from the water in a series of salt evaporation ponds and canals that would filter the pollution. The north end of the sea would be restored as a disease-free deep sea fishery. The south end would become low-water wetlands.

New Inland Sea

The All-American Canal is an 80-mile-long feat of engineering genius that was completed in the early ’40s. The completion of the aqueduct that carries Colorado River water diverted from the Parker Dam was the future envisioned by George Chaffey for the Imperial Valley of southeastern California. The Canadian-born engineer with a statue in front of Upland City Hall was key in the development of western San Bernardino Valley. He is also responsible for the only man-made mistake visible from space.

In 1901 the Chaffey-engineered Alamo Canal—an illegal diversion of the Colorado River in Mexico territory—was built to follow a historic dry stream bed that flowed across the border for 45 miles into the dry Salton Sink. The Chaffey gate was in operation for four years before storm waters from an Arizona tributary combined with the Rocky Mountain snow melt to overwhelm the canal and flood the Salton Trough. The massive 70-mile-wide flood basin extends from south of Indio for 130-miles into Mexico to stop at a natural earthen dam that blocks out the Gulf of California.

The low point of the arid region, near the Riverside County line, is 277 feet below sea level or five feet higher than the lowest point in North America: the Badwater region of Death Valley.

The eventual 20-mile-wide breach that formed in the Alamo canal was enough to create a meander in the course of the Colorado River and force it to flow away from the Pacific Ocean into the flood basin. It took two years before the federal government could stop the flow. The high water level of the new inland sea was well below the former Lake Cahuilla that dried up four hundred years earlier. The former sea was mapped in Spanish expeditions of the area and also left behind a “bathtub ring” on the side of the Santa Rosa Mountains. It is visible to motorists on California Highway 86.

Agua Dulce

The Imperial Irrigation District controls water flow throughout southeast California in a 3,000-mile-long network of canals that dumps over one million acre-feet of water into the Salton Sea each year. Water officials blame the recent concrete lining of a 23-mile portion of the canal that serves as a de facto border with Mexico as the catalyst to the large-scale evaporation of the Salton Sea. The south-facing slope of the unlined canal was responsible for the yearly seepage of up to 100,000-acre-feet of water in underground aquifers in the Mexicali Valley of Mexico.

The recouped cache is large enough to supply water to 135,000 households in the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The farmers in Mexico call the water pumped from the ground aquifers agua dulce, or “sweet water” for the purity of the blend. It is far less salty than the local waters and used to make the available water supply viable for irrigation. Without access to the previously seeped water and the Colorado River flow into Mexico to stay well below historic levels, the agriculture in the region will dry up. The reduction in humidity is likely to allow the nearby Imperial Sand Dunes to blow through and take over the region.

An unsuccessful lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Nevada last decade to stop the water transfer from residents in Mexicali and a group on bi-national nonprofits. The lawsuit claimed the concrete lining of the All-American Canal will “cripple the agricultural sector, threaten several endangered species, dry up wetlands and lakes, increase air pollution, and cause economic upheaval for thousands of people and businesses in the Mexicali Valley, leading to increased migratory pressure on the United States.”

The lawyers claimed the environmental damage was too great of a price to pay for a water that will be used to build a golf courses in San Diego County.

Under the Harsh Desert Sun

Dust mitigation is the last item on an unchecked list for a costly plan laid out by the SSA, a plan that might just be really designed to turn the North Shore bust town into an improved version of the ’60s era marina for the wealthy. The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club was a celebrity hot spot in the heydays of the accidental inland ocean. The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Bros. were regulars to the scene. Jet boat races were always a big draw. It was often hard to find a spot to lay a beach towel as yearly visitor numbers were comparable with Yosemite.

But later the next decade a series of tropical storms from the Gulf of California blew through the region to destroy the harbor jetty. The sea level rose to flood buildings and then evaporated to leave behind salt encrusted structures to rot under the harsh desert sun.

Over time, the seawater became increasingly saltier and more polluted. A room near the yacht club bar became an AA meeting location before fish kills finished off the region. The Albert Frey-designed building that was built to look like a futuristic ship fell into disrepair. The Palm Spring architect is well known for desert modernism. It was a theme that fit well with the prophetic verse of graffiti scrawled in the swimming pool nearby that reads: Many lose the search for home.


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