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Salton Sea Ecological
Disaster Nears Climax

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Clock Is Ticking On The Abandoned California Lake Town: Diverted Water Will Make Toxic Dust Plumes A Possibility For Southern California And Arizona


By Kelsey Sinclair
Modern Times Magazine

April 21, 2017 — Hidden near the chocolate mountains of Southern California, the Salton Sea was once a glimmering oasis for tourists, fisherman, and boaters in the otherwise barren Sonoran Desert. Looking at the decrepit beach littered with abandoned boats and mummified fish carcasses, I can’t help but wonder “where did it all go wrong?”

In 1905, massive flooding from the Colorado River breached an Imperial Valley dike, creating a water flow that lasted 18 months. The result was the Salton Sea, an unlikely body of water that spanned 35 miles by 15 miles.

By the 1950s, Salton Sea was among the best tourist spots in the nation, drawing even more visitors than Yosemite. It was California’s largest lake and hosted tourists from across the globe. But with pollution and increasing salinity, the sea and its surrounding towns took a turn for the worse. Year after year, the water quality decreased as more pollution spilled in and more water evaporated in the desert.

The Salton Sea has no outlets, so the salt and pesticide runoff from nearby farms has nowhere to go. It is now saltier than the Pacific Ocean. 

Pulling up to the beach front, I pass the tiny seaside town of Bombay Beach. A couple of decades ago, it would be considered quaint, but now is a poverty-stricken mobile home park where half the homes are abandoned and the other half definitely should be. 

The beach itself looks like a set from a horror movie. The water extends to the skyline, but the beach, littered with dead fish carcasses, puts a damper on the beauty. As the pollution and salinity increased and oxygen levels of the water decreased, more and more fish died. Due to the enormous salinity of the lake, the fish are almost mummified; the bodies are well-preserved but the eye sockets are hauntingly empty. The mouths are gaping, and scales hang through ribcages.

I notice the sand has an odd consistency and after running my hand along the surface, I realize why: much of the beach “sand” is actually crushed up fish bones and scales. The whole town has an overwhelmingly putrid scent of dead fish.  

After talking to the residents, it seems that no one actually swims here: not residents or the few curious tourists who have come to witness the destruction. No one has summoned up the courage to dive into the lake of fish carcasses and pollution. No one seems to care about the beach at all. It is littered with old couches, shoes, destroyed buildings and docks. 

A few miles from Bombay Beach is the area of North Shore. There are not many people left here either, and somehow it is in an even more depressed state than Bombay Beach. 

Just driving down the road, I come across an abandoned gas station, video store, and dozens of homes. Almost all are decorated with graffiti. Above the doorway of one abandoned home, a scrawled warning in paint aptly reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Not only is Salton Sea a horrifying eyesore, it is quickly turning into an environmental disaster for not only California but also Arizona.

In January 2018, water that had been flowing into the Salton Sea will be diverted from the Sea to urban water districts, causing the Sea to shrink rapidly and leave behind large, dry playas. The playas will become something of a toxic wasteland, blowing dust containing heavy metals and agricultural chemicals, including cadmium, arsenic, and selenium into the air, which could travel as far as the coastal cities. It may already be happening, with asthma rates 3 times higher near Salton Sea than anywhere else in California. The particle rate is expected to increase dramatically as the lake rapidly shrinks. 

The dust will directly affect the 600,000 people in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, and even more during tourist season. If the dust blows out through the San Gorgonio Pass and San Bernardino, then millions of California residents will be affected.

The University of California, Irvine has formed a multidisciplinary group to help address the Salton Sea problem. The Salton Sea Initiative is led by Timothy Bradley, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. The homepage of the website has an ominous heading: a “countdown to public health disaster” with a countdown of days, hours, minutes, and even seconds. The countdown shows the number of days until water is withdrawn from the Imperial Valley and send to urban water districts. Once the water is withdrawn, the playa will be whipping around an incredible amount of toxic dust.

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