California’s Biggest Lake Getting Much-Needed Attention

“It’s a long time in coming,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot about the $200 million the state is investing on a project to restore the shrinking Salton Sea. California hopes to eventually cover or alter up to 40,000 acres of the exposed lakebed on the state’s largest lake.

Gone dry

Located in both Riverside and Imperial counties, the Salton Sea lies within the geographic Salton Trough that starts at the San Gorgonio Pass in Riverside County and stretches down to Mexico. The lake was created by inflow of water to the dry lakebed from the Colorado River in the early 1900s.

By the 1950s and ‘60s, the area around the lake became a resort destination with clubs that hosted entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and The Beach Boys. Fishing, water skiing, and other water sports were commonplace in the salty lake. Due to a number of factors, including evaporation and agriculture irrigation, by the 1970s, environmental experts were warning of a transformation. By the 1990s, less water and a higher concentration of salt led to a stinky die-off of fish. 

The Salton Sea has been shrinking rapidly, especially since the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) stopped feeding it water in 2018. By 2020, a Palm Springs Life article noted the waterway was no longer known for sports or celebrities, but instead, the “Salton Sea derives its fame as the biggest environmental disaster in California history.”

It’s now dry banks today present a major health risk to residents and visitors when strong winds whip up the dust. This air pollution affects the entire basin, from Los Angeles to Mexico.

First major restoration project

The state is investing more than $200 million to control dust, and create bird and fish habitat. The project broke ground in January, with plans to create flooded ponds and other areas at the southern edge of the lake.

The issue is the thousands of acres of exposed lakebed. The bottom is typically a deep layer of fine silt and when covered with water, it doesn’t pose a risk. But when that water is gone and the dust blows, air quality is greatly diminished and impacts everything in the environment. 

This effort aims to ebb the ecological crisis. Crowfoot expects to complete the project by 2023.  

Frank Ruiz, director of Audubon California’s Salton Sea Program, noted that this project was something to celebrate as we enter a second year of a deadly pandemic and said, “After years of false starts and delays, shovels have finally hit the ground and the Species Conservation Project is becoming a reality. . . . We are simply out of time – if we allow the Sea to continue to decline, the health impacts on surrounding communities and the effect on the millions of migratory birds from Alaska to the Amazon will be catastrophic.”