Issues We Work On

Salton Sea

California’s Salton Sea is a fertile oasis in the hostile desert of southeastern California, adopted by millions of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Yet the Sea is beset by a host of challenges, including a declining water supply, rising salinity, very high levels of nutrients that generate excessive algal growth and very low oxygen levels, and, most worrisome of all, general indifference – if not outright hostility – from state and federal decision-makers, most of whom think the Sea and its problems will simply disappear if they continue to ignore it.

The Sea defies easy description, challenging preconceptions about conservation priorities. It is a heavily human-altered landscape and often smells from the overabundance of life and death it hosts – traits that make it difficult to embrace and champion. Agricultural drainage water, laden with the fertilizers applied to fields, has created a tremendously productive ecosystem at the Sea. Fish and invertebrates swim through its turbid waters and dig through its rich sediments, feeding enormous numbers of pelicans, cormorants, skimmers, herons, egrets, rails, and other birds. In all, more than 400 species of birds – the second highest bird count in the country – have been spotted at the Sea and its environs.

The scale of the Sea adds to the difficulty of finding a viable solution to its problems. The Salton Sea has the largest surface area of any lake in California, yet is barely 45 feet at its deepest point. More than a million acre-feet of water flow into the Sea each year, but less than the amount that evaporates from its broad surface. Since 2005, the surface elevation of the Sea has fallen by about a half foot per year, exposing thousands of acres of former lakebed to the desert’s blowing winds. Salinity at the Sea now exceeds 50 g/L – a third saltier than the ocean. And salinity continues to rise.

Legislation enabling the 2003 water transfer agreement required the state to develop a restoration plan. This plan, delivered to the legislature in 2007, carried a $9 billion price tag and was effectively shelved by the legislators. Unfortunately, the legislature, concerned by limited budgets and skeptical of local stakeholders, has taken very little action since then. State agencies charged with developing long-term restoration plans have failed to do so, instead spending tens of millions of dollars on consultants and new studies, but have yet to build an acre of habitat at the Salton Sea.

The Pacific Institute has played an active role at the Sea for almost 15 years. We have produced two leading reports on the Sea, including Hazard, outlining the importance of the Sea and the likely consequences of failing to act on its behalf. We have developed restoration concepts for the Sea, participated on the state’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee, and continue to work actively with state agencies and local stakeholders to get real habitat constructed on the ground to benefit at-risk species and to diminish the amount of dust blowing off of exposed lakebed. Meanwhile, we continue to promote the importance of the Sea as a bellwether of water transfer impacts and the importance of California’s remaining wetlands. For more information on our Salton Sea efforts, please refer to the Publication, News, and Blog rolls on this page.

Dates of Importance

[9/27/10] Govenor signs Salton Sea Legislation

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill by Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny to create a new council to oversee the restoration of Salton Sea. The bill to create the Salton Sea Restoration Council passed the Assembly, 51-25, on Aug. 31, the last day of the legislative session. It then passed the Senate, 26-4.

The Pacific Institute, in conjunction with other organizations representing environmental, hunting, and fishing interests, sent the Govenor a letter urging him to sign SB 51 which would establish the Salton Sea Restoration Council as an agency in the Natural Resources Agency to oversee the restoration of the Salton Sea. Read the letter here.

[4/20/04] California’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee Appoints Institute’s Cohen

To help direct California’s effort to develop a restoration plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem, the state appointed the Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen to a seat on its Advisory Committee. More information on the Advisory Committee is available online. The Institute, together with the Salton Sea Coalition, recently submitted comments on the State’s proposed scope of work.

[4/03] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IID-San Diego Water Transfer DEIR/DEIS

Download the Pacific Institute’s April 2003 comments on the DEIR/DEIS as a PDF.

[3/02] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IA/IOP DEIR/DEIS

Download our March 2002 comments on the Department of the Interior’s Implementation Agreement, Inadvertent Overrun and Payback Policy, and Related Federal Actions draft Environmental Impact Statement as a PDF.


Learn More About: Sustainable Water Management – Local to Global

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