The Imperial Poisoning of the Salton Sea

We need your help to sustain grassroots, groundbreaking journalism. Make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout now by clicking here.

I visited Salton Sea on January 13, 2013. It was sunny and modestly cool day. The few birds wading in the lake added color and beauty to the naked nature surrounding the controversial and threatened Salton Sea.

I saw few tourists and no one in a boat or fishing. Hard times have become a permanent feature of the life and death of Salton Sea. Yet, the information pamphlets I received on entering the “Salton Sea State Recreation Area” painted a picture of a huge lake thriving on tourism, fishing and millions upon millions of birds. The Salton Sea had become “a birdwatcher’s delight.”

The Salton Sea is more than 100 years old, having been created by an accidental spill of the Colorado River in the middle of the Colorado Desert in southern California in 1905. It is, park cartographers say, “a landlocked extension of the Gulf of California.”

Man intervened to make the Colorado River accident permanent, not because of love of a wild water lake, but because that lake allowed him to cultivate crops in the desert. Some 500,000 acres of desert have been converted into large farms in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. These giant industrial one-crop farms grow alfalfa, beef, and vegetables valued at well over a billion dollars per year.

The businessmen who dreamt converting the desert to farms also dreamt of using the water of the Colorado River for irrigation. They convinced the State of California and the federal government to fund their expensive irrigation works.

However, growing crops in the desert demands lots of water – not merely to satisfy the thirst of the crops, but also to flush the excessive salts away from the roots of the crops. One acre of alfalfa, for example, requires six acre-feet of water. Some of that water goes to draining the soil of salts. The farms of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys have been plumped to carry salts and the remaining agricultural wastes (selenium, fertilizers and pesticides) to the Salton Sea, which, conveniently enough, sits between the Coachella and Imperial Valleys. Mexico’s New River also unloads tons of human, animal and industrial wastes right into the waters of the Salton Sea.

It is these wastes, particularly the excessive and constant agricultural wastes of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, which have been killing the Salton Sea. The salts of the desert farms are making the water of the Salton Sea perilous for fish. Park documents say the sea is something like 30 percent saltier than the ocean.

Agricultural fertilizers cause algae blooms in the sea, which remove oxygen from the water, thus suffocating the fish that feed hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. Pesticides in the water kill fish outright or make the fish deadly food: weakening the immune system of or poisoning those who eat the fish. Finally, selenium may, and, sometimes, does cause harm to fish and to those eating the fish.

The 1990s nearly killed the Salton Sea. So many birds were dying that the park purchased an incinerator to burn them. In 1992, about 150,000 eared grebes died of poisoning.

Officials raised the specter of cholera and bacterial and viral infectious diseases, but failed to connect the dots with the toxic farm wastes. In 1994, another 20,000 eared grebes dropped dead. In 1996, about 15 to 20 percent of the white pelicans living in the West died at Salton Sea, including some 1,000 endangered brown pelicans. And in 1998, 7.6 million tilapia and croakers died from asphyxiation in the dead zones of the Salton Sea.

The bird die-offs speak loudly about the demise of this large lake in the flight path of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. The poisoning of the sea also demonstrates that the Imperial and Coachella Valleys are unsustainable. They are primarily responsible for the ceaseless contamination of the Salton Sea with farm runoff loaded with selenium, pesticides, and fertilizers. Finally, the recurring death of migrating birds violates international law (the Migratory Bird Treaty) and national law (the Endangered Species Act).

The way out from death to life at the Salton Sea requires healing at the source: the industrial farming of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys needs to abandon its toxic ways. Encourage or mandate farmers to adopt pollution prevention methods: use fewer sprays, less or no pesticides at all; smaller amounts of fertilizers; crop diversification and crop rotation; and better irrigation management practices. The farmers must also clean their run-off before that waste enters the Salton Sea.

Mexico must also stop polluting the New River or American authorities must divert the New River away from the Salton Sea.

If such a strategy fails to heal the Salton Sea, the time is right to end farming in the desert and allow the Salton Sea to flourish. The federal government and the State of California ought to buy the desert back from the farmers, subtracting from the price all their investments in irrigation and water. Let the Colorado River replenish the water of the Salton Sea.

As it is, the sea is a haven for 80 to 90 percent of America’s endangered bird species. The Salton Sea is also a sanctuary for millions of migrating birds. Given time, a healed Salton Sea will become a paradise for birds and people seeking enjoyment and pleasure from a restored natural world.

Losing a billion dollars from farming is a small price to pay for saving America’s wildlife. Such a step will tell the world we are finally becoming serious in ending the scourge of pollution.