Paradise Lost: The Salton Sea Crisis Caused by Toxic exposure


Once a household name and home to over 270 bird species, the Salton Sea is now a pale shadow of its former self in all aspects. Decades of toxic outbreaks have seen the bird species drop to a paltry 20 while the residents of surrounding areas have the highest asthma rates in the state.

The latest toxic algae outbreak occurred only last month, leading to the death of a dog that had gone swimming in the lake. The state’s water board said: 

“Cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms can affect the skin, liver and nervous system of people and of dogs and livestock.”

Josh, a young resident of the area, said:  

“Sometimes my throat starts hurting when I start breathing.”

Not a Household Name

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and is found just a short drive south of Palm Springs. It is one of the world’s largest inland seas at approximately 232 feet (70 m) below sea level. It has 130 miles of shoreline and is larger than Lake Tahoe.

The sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through a series of dikes, flooding a salty basin known as the Salton Sink in the Imperial Valley. The sea is an important stopping point for 1 million migratory waterfowl and serves as critical habitat for birds moving south to Mexico and Central America. Overall, the Salton Sea once harbored more than 270 species of birds, including ducks, geese, cormorants, and pelicans.

The drive along the circumference of the Salton Sea reveals surprising, majestic views, unlike anything you’d expect to find in the desert. But for its impressive sights and size, the Salton Sea is not a household name; least of all, in the same state, it’s found. These days, if you travel along the increasingly shrinking shorelines, you’ll see suffering communities dotted with abandoned homes and lined with silent streets.

According to the state and area residents, the lake’s area is full of toxins affecting the lungs and toxins affecting the liver. It has become a looming environmental and public health disaster. The Salton Sea’s shoreline has been receding and exposed a dusty lakebed known as the “playa.” This sandy substance holds a century’s worth of agricultural runoff, including DDT, ammonia, possibly carcinogenic herbicides like trifluralin and other chemicals. Its windborne dust travels across Southern California and into Arizona, but nearby communities, most of them populated by Latino farmworkers, bear the heaviest burden.

Yet To Start Controlling the Dust

The problem has persisted for a while now, yet California, though primarily responsible for fixing it, has barely touched the more than 25 square miles of the exposed playa. It’s been almost two decades since an agreement was signed in 2003, committing the Imperial Irrigation District, the Colorado River’s largest user, to conserve water that once flowed from farms into the lake and send it to other districts. Knowing the lake would recede, the state committed to mitigating the health and environmental impacts. The state and federal governments have spent about $70 million so far, mainly on salaries and studies. Meanwhile, the high-water mark has fallen nearly 10 feet, and salinity continues to rise.

Ruben Dominguez, who lives near the lake’s southern shore in Calipatria, is frustrated with government officials who’ve talked about revitalizing the Salton Sea for years but have yet to start controlling the dust. His 16-year-old daughter has asthma and stays indoors when it’s windy. He often sees brown clouds drift from the shore into his neighborhood. Dominguez said:

“Everybody knows it’s getting worse, but nothing’s getting done […] people in Sacramento, they have no idea what we go through over here. They’re not breathing in this air.”

Windblown Dust and the Rotten-Egg Stench

California lawmakers promised to fix the Salton Sea in 2003 after demanding the farm-to-city water transfers that created the crisis. But so far, the state hasn’t lived up to that promise.

Imperial County has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California, and the county’s 180,000 residents will suffer even more when the water transfers accelerated in 2018. They’re not the only ones at risk. Windblown dust and the rotten-egg stench that occasionally waft from the lake also affect the Coachella Valley, threatening a $5-billion tourism industry. And suppose California doesn’t live up to its promise to restore the lake. In that case, the Imperial Irrigation District could torpedo negotiations over the future of the Colorado River, increasing the odds of unprecedented shortages along a river that provides water to nearly 40 million people.