How California’s Salton Sea went from vacation destination to toxic nightmare

This story is part of the Grist . series thirstAn in-depth look at how droughts caused by climate change are reshaping societies, economies and ecosystems.

In the spring of 1905, the Colorado River, inundated by monsoon rains, topped an irrigation canal and flooded a dry lake bed site in Southern California. The flood, which lasted for two years before engineers sealed off the shattered canal, created an unexpected gem in the middle of a barren California landscape: the Salton Sea. In the decades that followed, vacationers, water skiers, and speedboat enthusiasts flocked to the bodies of water. The Beach Boys and Marx Brothers moored their boats at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, which opened in 1959. At the time, it looked like the Salton Sea, and the vibrant communities that had sprung up around it, would be there for centuries to come.

But the peak of the sea did not last long. Cut off from and sustaining the source of life that created it—the Colorado River—primarily due to limited agricultural runoff from nearby farms, the landlocked pool begins to evaporate. The remaining water became increasingly salty and toxic. Tourism dried up. The smell of rotten eggs, from the high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the sea, filled the air. The fish died in large numbers from lack of oxygen, as their bones washed up on the shore like sand.

Oxygen-starved tilapia floats in the shallow Salton Sea Bay
Oxygen-starved tilapia floats in shallow Salton Sea Bay near Niland, California
AP Photo / Gregory Poole

By the 1980s, wealthy white vacationers had fled. Today, the community consists of predominantly Latino agricultural workers working in the nearby fields of Imperial County, among the poorest counties in California, and indigenous tribes that have called the area home for thousands of years. They suffer from a unique combination of health threats that stem from the Salton Sea.

The water body is fed by about 50 agricultural canals, carrying limited amounts of water saturated with pesticides, nitrogen, fertilizers and other agricultural by-products. As a result, the salt lake sediments are riddled with toxins such as lead, chromium, and DDT. Climate change and the massive, protracted drought sweeping the western United States only exacerbates these problems. The Salton Sea is expected to lose three-quarters of its volume by the end of this decade; Falling water levels could expose an additional 100,000 acres of lake bed. The sea level has already shrunk by nearly 38 square miles since 2003.

As the sea dries up and more beaches are exposed, the strong winds that have blighted this part of California are whipping up chemical-encapsulated dust into nearby communities, where nearly 650,000 people live. Residents complain of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma and other health problems.

“It’s a huge environmental sanitation issue,” Sierra Club senior campaign representative Jenny Benstock told Greste. “It leads to increased attacks of asthma, bronchitis and lung disease.” Hospitalization rates for children with asthma in facilities near the sea are nearly double the state average.

Away from the dust, Ryan Sinclair, an environmental microbiologist at Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California, is concerned about bioaerosols — tiny airborne particles that come from plants and animals — that can develop from algae or bacteria in shallow seawater. tepid. .

Top view of the marinas that became landlocked as the Salton Sea evaporated
Top view of the marinas that became landlocked as the Salton Sea evaporated
David McNew/Getty Images

“Algae produce toxins for algae and bacteria can produce endotoxins, both of which can volatilize and infect neighboring communities,” he said. Sinclair noted that when the researchers exposed the mice to volatile Salton Sea water, the mice developed “a unique type of asthma.” He is currently working with communities around the Salton Sea to measure and document levels of nutrients and algae in the water, something neither state nor federal agencies currently do. “There is something to be done about this,” he said.

But the solutions are limited. Kicked dust can be suppressed, to an extent, through habitat restoration projects. It is proposed to begin this year the first major project to restore the Salton Sea, a network of ponds on 30,000 acres of lake bed. But the project is not a substitute for the obvious: The sea is rapidly shrinking and it needs a new pumping of water to survive. “The perfect solution for the Salton Sea - in a world with abundant water and more reliable hydrological cycles - is we’re going to fill this thing back up,” said Benstock of the Sierra Club.

But there is no water to be had. One suggestion is to ship brine from the Sea of ​​Cortez in Mexico, 125 miles south, but Binstock isn’t sure the pros of that plan outweigh the cons. “The massive investments in solid infrastructure, the disruption of the scourge, the impacts on public health and the environment, the costs are just…bananas are beautiful to think about,” she said.

Last week, a state-appointed independent review panel evaluating viable long-term dust suppression options for the Salton Sea advised against importing water from the Sea of ​​Cortez or any other body close to salt water. Instead, the commission recommended that the state build a desalination plant next to the sea to gradually filter out some of the lake’s salinity. It also proposed paying Imperial County farmers not to plant their fields, which would allow more water to reach the sea from the Colorado River instead of being drawn by farmers. Both strategies would slowly replenish the sea with fresh water, revive aquatic ecosystems, and allow the sea “to return to being a jewel in the California desert, and a place others will want to visit and live next door to again,” the commission’s summary of the report said.

Respiratory Disease Public Health in Salton Sea
Marta Sanchez stands in her home in Mecca, California, in 2015. Sanchez says her bronchitis worsened after the family moved to Mecca in 2010. AP Photo / Gregory Poole

Mariela Loera, a policy advocate at the California-based Leadership Advisor for Justice and Accountability, doesn’t see an adequate long-term solution to the problem. I’ve worked with communities around the Salton Sea for years. Dust suppression efforts and habitat restoration projects are a helpful dressing, she said, “but ideally, there is a long-term solution to clean water.”

Meanwhile, Salton’s abundant brine presents an unexpected opportunity: a wealth of lithium, the much-needed metal.

Lithium is the main component of electric car batteries and clean energy storage, but it is also in short supply. Lithium prices have risen nearly 400 per cent this year as the global uptake of electric vehicles increases and companies become increasingly desperate to find new sources of the metal. The state of California estimates that the Salton Sea has enough lithium to supply America’s entire appetite, now and in the future, and 40 percent of global demand on top of that.

Loera and other local groups understand the importance of lithium stores at sea, but say the communities affected by toxic dust and algal blooms in the area need justice before extraction can begin. “A lot of residents have questions about the potential effects,” Loera said. Lithium mining requires copious amounts of water. Will that water come from the limited supply of the sea? And what effects might mining have on the state’s ongoing efforts to restore habitats and reduce dust? These and other questions raised by the community have not yet been adequately answered. “There is a lack of community participation in the decision-making process so far,” she said. “We need to have that conversation: How are we going to continue this green transition, but in an environmentally fair way?”