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The Salton Sea: An Opportunity to Improve Health and Stimulate the Economy

Mara Elana Burstein, Director of Development, LASC


Like most Southern Californians, I knew the Salton Sea was somewhere out east, but didn’t know much about its history, impact on Southern California’s air quality, or ecological value. I recently had the pleasure of learning more about it and the challenges of managing it for a Hydrology class I took during the summer at Columbia University.  This is what I learned.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest body of water and is located in the hottest and driest part of the state: 35 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, 90 miles east of San Diego, and 60 miles west of the Colorado River.  Geologic studies suggest that this area flooded and dried numerous times in the last 10,000 years when the course of the Colorado River delta shifted.  This prehistoric sea was known as Lake Cahuilla and the most recent manifestation evaporated between 300 to 500 years ago.  Since then, shallow ephemeral lakes periodically appeared in response to overflow from the current course of the Colorado River.  The current Salton Sea was created by accident in 1906 when an effort to divert the Colorado River went awry.  Since the 1920’s, the Sea has been used to irrigate surrounding farms and is now plagued by contaminated agricultural runoff.  Additionally, it loses about 1.36 million acre-feet of water each year from evaporation exposing dry lake bed and further degrading Southern California’s air quality.  Mitigating air pollution and the health costs associated with it should be reason enough to restore this dying lake, however the area also has the potential to boost California’s tourism economy.  Unfortunately, policymakers and southern Californians largely ignore it because restoration would be expensive.

Air Quality

In addition to poor water quality, evaporation exposes hundreds of miles of dry seabed increasing the amount of windblown dust in the air.  Southern California air agencies already fail to meet state and federal air quality standards, which poses huge impacts to the state, including premature deaths, hospitalizations, increased lost school and workdays, and other health related issues. Without action, the Salton Sea could make the already intractable air pollution problems in the region even more difficult to solve.

Water Quality

The Sea is more than 220 feet below sea level and does not have an outlet to the ocean.  Average annual precipitation is less than three inches per year and temperatures exceed 100°F more than 110 days each year.  The Sea loses about 1.36 million acre-feet (maf) each year from evaporation.  Agricultural runoff, including pesticides like DDT and Agent Orange, still flow into the sea.  Additionally, since only freshwater is evaporated, salts and contaminants are concentrated in the remaining waters.  Today, salt concentrations are about 48,000 milligrams per liter–about 30 percent higher than the Pacific.  Since 1992, poor water quality has been responsible for massive fish die-offs as well as avian botulism, cholera, and other diseases have killed hundreds of thousands of birds.

Critical Habitat

Despite the Sea’s poor water quality, it supports the most concentrated and diverse bird populations in the world over the last 100 years.  It is a crucial stopover along the Pacific Flyway—a major north-south avian migration route from Alaska to Patagonia—for nesting, resting, and roosting.  Over 400 bird species have been identified at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.  The Sea is also home to fish, amphibians, mammals, and other organisms.  Restoration could greatly improve species diversity and draw tourists, birders, and scientists to the area.


In 1998, the Salton Sea Authority (SSA) was created to research restoration options and improve water quality inputs, reduce salinity, stabilize surface elevation, reclaim the long-term habitat health and wildlife resources, and stimulate economic development and recreation.  In 2003, the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) was signed, and the responsible agencies agreed to maintain Salton Sea levels at 227 feet above mean sea level until 2017. In 2018, 370,000 acre-feet per year, or roughly 28% of annual Colorado River inflow, would decrease over the course of 15 to 20 years.  Although restoration plans have been studied and proposed, nothing has been adopted and lake levels have already fallen below -227 feet.  The “Preferred Alternative Report and Funding Plan,” developed by California’s Resources Agency, identifies a restoration alternative to improve water quality, restore habitat for birds and other organisms, and mitigate air quality impacts.  It would cost $8.879 billion over 75 years by creating a 45,000 acre marine sea, a 62,000 acre saline habitat complex, and 106,000 acres of exposed playa.


The poor water and air quality associated with the Salton Sea have long been recognized as significant issues.  The preferred restoration alternative could address these issues, but comes with a significant price tag.  However, without action, these issues will get worse and eventually cost more.  Additionally after 2017, more pressure will be placed on water managers and those responsible for restoration when the QSA allows increased water diversions away from the Salton Sea.  While the cost of restoration is high, it is worth it to protect this vital resource.  Southern Californians have consistently been leaders on environmental quality, and the Sea serves a blemish on that record.  Not only do we have an opportunity here to mitigate increased air pollution, but also create an economic center for tourism through recreation and birding.



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