Satellite image of the Salton Sea area. The patterns above and below the lake are the massive agricultural lands that have built up since diversion of the Colorado River to the area in the 1900s. The tan color everywhere else? Desert. As Mother Nature is showing us recently, there is a price to be paid for trying to maximize short-term profit and make the desert temporarily “bloom”.
Sometimes Mother Nature gives us a reminder of how much we’ve screwed up the planet. That’s certainly happening right now in the western U.S., with an extreme drought serving to highlight human mismanagement of both water and land use in the region. While most of the focus has been on urban and agricultural water limitations, there’s also an impact on wildlife.
The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It also didn’t even exist until 1905, at least not in recorded history in the West. The Colorado River has long been an overused water source for a water-thirsty West, and in 1905 an accidental break in canals diverting water from the Colorado River resulted in two years of ALL Colorado River water flowing into the Salton Sea basin. Since its formation, it has sporadically served as a resort destination, extremely productive fishery, and habitat for millions of migratory birds.
What’s that you say? Habitat for millions of birds, and a bird crazy person like myself is saying “good riddance” to the Salton Sea? Yes, without reservation. The basin holding the Salton Sea HAS occasionally naturally filled with water over the past several thousand years, but the accident that created the current version of the Sea was anything but natural. Before settlement of the West, the Colorado River flowed into the Gulf of California, creating a vast delta where it entered the ocean. Once California, Nevada, and Arizona started diverting water from the Colorado, those flows to the ocean diminished, to the point that NO water from the Colorado regularly reaches the Gulf of California anymore. A planned pulse of water was allowed to reach the Gulf in 2014, but other than that, water has only sporadically (and rarely) reached the Gulf since the 1950s.
The Colorado River’s delta has long since dried up, taking with it the natural habitat that was once found there. Has the Salton Sea been a boon to bird life in the West? Perhaps, although it’s hard to judge the tradeoff of creating the Salton Sea, but losing the Colorado Delta and riparian habitat associated with the Colorado River. What everybody agrees on is that as the Salton Sea continues to shrink, there are serious health and environmental issues that are likely to occur. The boom days of the Salton Sea are long past. The resorts are gone, and the now extremely salty water is only able to support Tilapia, who themselves are now subject to periodic fish kills due to poor water conditions. Diverted water from the Colorado continues to enable agriculture in the region, but as the recent drought is showing, there simply isn’t enough water to go around in the West.
“Fixing” the Salton Sea would again require diverting massive amounts of water from the Colorado River. There simply isn’t enough of a water resource to support the Salton Sea, the Colorado Delta, and a booming human footprint in the West. And so I say…good riddance to the Salton Sea, IF it means restoring natural flows to the Colorado Delta and Gulf of California. Yes, there will be health and environmental issues to deal with in the aftermath of the demise of the Salton Sea. But as Mother Nature has again reminded us with the western drought, there are consequences for only thinking about short-term economic gain and human well-being, and failing to consider sustainability and long-term consequences.