As the Salton Sea’s water levels decline more and more, it is up to the few to save what they can.
By Arthur Andrew
Construction equipment sits dormant at the Red Hills Bay Project. The wetlands restoration site looks like ground broke a week before. The construction site that will save 420 acres of wetland is still a dry lake bed that can cause some nasty dust storms when the winds come through. Without any prior knowledge, the Red Hills Bay Project looks like three tractors sitting in the desert next to a long row of piled dirt.
“It was hanging on that post right there two weeks ago,” says Kerry Morrison. “A sign. There was a sign there that explained what the project is.” Morrison is the founder of Ecomedia Compass, a non-profit organization now leading the movement to restore the Salton Sea.
California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea lies between Riverside and Imperial counties in the Colorado Desert of Southern California. An hour drive south of Palm Springs and an hour north of Calexico, the Salton Sea lies in the Salton Sink 234 feet below sea level with no natural water input besides rain and no output besides evaporation. Agricultural runoff is the main source of water through the New, Hope, and Alamo Rivers. The Salton Sea was formed in a water infrastructure mistake that allowed water being diverted from the Colorado River to flow into the Salton Sink, 234 feet below sea level. In the past 100 years the Salton Sea’s water levels have fluctuated through topical storms and drought but now faces a threat much different.
Currently, the future of the Salton Sea relies on a Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) set in place in 2003. The QSA is a 15-year agreement between the four local water districts over their water rights to the Colorado River. The QSA established that less water would be diverted to the Salton Sea but that water mitigations were required in order to retain water levels. Through the QSA, the state of California and the four water districts have a commitment to restoring the Salton Sea. There is no plan to continue the QSA once it expires on January 1, 2018 as all four districts are struggling for water resources. As the Joint Powers Authority established under the QSA has fulfilled its financial responsibilities and mitigation efforts, the State of California has no clear plan for the necessary quick restoration of the Salton Sea.
Ecomedia Compass is not the only environmental organization in the region. The National Audubon Society has helped start small mitigation projects but not full scale restoration. The Sierra Club is just beginning to get involved. Morrison, a former worker for Greenpeace, is always trying to get his old team involved but with no success.
“We are the ones closest to the sea,” says Morrison. “The local residents here are mostly retired and are wonderful. They know a lot and come up and always ask ‘What can we do?’”
Tom Sephton is the president of Sephton Water Technology and has been involved with the Salton Sea for years. Sephton is currently running the Geothermal Desalination Demonstration Project. Sephton has always been interested in renewable energy projects and sees the shrinking Salton Sea as a canvas.
“We could have the largest renewable energy site here in the nation,” says Sephton. “The Salton Sea is on the San Andreas Fault so geothermal has huge potential and desalinization. We could have the largest solar field in the nation holding down the exposed dust.”
In the past 13 years, little has been done to change the situation at the Salton Sea. But things continue to change. As the water levels recede and the lakebed is exposed, a slow migration out of Salton City has occurred. In the past five years, nearly half of the stores and businesses in Salton City have closed. There is no local newspaper anymore. While Imperial Valley provides over 60 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, the nearest fresh food to purchase is at the local ARCO.
The temperatures in the Imperial Valley rise well above the hundreds in the summer. On top of the blistering summer heat, Imperial County is one of most impoverished counties in the nation. With an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants, agricultural economy struggling, businesses closing, and a shrinking sea, there does not seem to be much hope in the air.
A young woman stands behind the counter at the burrito shop in the ARCO. “I came here because he said he had bought a place for me,” she says. “When I came I didn’t like it. But the stars, I love seeing the stars here. Then he left but I stayed.”
The dramatic landscape of the Salton Sea and the surrounding hills attract many photographers and artists for the intense beauty of the region. Outdoor enthusiasts come for camping, hikes, wildlife, and outdoor activities.
“I love it here, there’s so much weird stuff to do,” says Morrison. “Unfortunately, without a Salton Sea, none of it will be possible.”
Past the Salton Sea, the sun drops behind the mountains, the largest mirror in California reflecting the soft desert pink evening sky. Morrison stands atop a small volcano overlooking the Red Hills Bay Project site.
“Currently, almost nothing has been done,”says Morrison.
A few wetland restoration sites have been established, ribbons cut as the cameras snapped photos last November in 2015 but with little follow up. The state funded Red Hills Bay Project site is now without a sign as it has been without a crew for the past year. Two weeks prior, when the sign was still up, Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge found local volunteers that were experienced operating tractors and construction machinery.
“So you’ve got these volunteers doing the work of the state for absolutely no profit besides attempting to save the sea the love,” said Morrison.“Unfortunately, this is the type of work that it is going to take.”