Science professors explain the dying Salton Sea

“As the sediment dries up, it will release small particles that will become airborne, affecting the lungs, heart, and DNA function.”



Photo courtesy of AP Images

The Salton Sea is commonly known as the largest man-made body of water, and it resides just 50 miles southeast from the Palm Desert campus of College of the Desert (COD). “The Salton Sea was re-created in 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley,” according to the National Parks Service. “By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breaching water in 1907, the Salton Sea had been born at 45 miles long and 20 miles wide – equaling about 130 miles of shoreline.”

“I would shy away from referring to the Salton Sea as an ‘accidental’ oasis,” states Professor of Natural Resources, Kurt Leuschner, “it’s an oasis to be sure, and the most recent version of the Salton Sea was allowed to occur just over 100 years ago when a flood overran the Colorado River irrigation scheme South of Brawley and flowed downhill into a temporarily empty dry hole.” Leuschner says, “if you look back in history you will see that less than 500 years ago the entire Salton Sea was filled with Colorado River water with a northern border stretching almost to Palm Springs, this giant lake was called Ancient Lake Cahuilla and it was six times bigger overall than the current Salton Sea.”

The Salton Sea serves many purposes other than being a recreational area for kayakers, water skiers or photographers. The Salton Sea is an incredibly important ecosystem to millions of birds each year. Over 420 bird species have been recorded there – making it the richest area for birds in the United States along with the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Adjunct Professor of Natural Resources, Candace Weber says, “it’s the second most important migratory bird stopover in North America. It lies along the Pacific Flyway, the western aerial pathway for birds migrating along the western/coastal region of North America,” and “given that close to 95 percent of California’s wetlands have been altered or removed for human uses. The Salton Sea has been a critical migratory stopover for hundreds of species that fly along the Pacific Flyway to places between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.”

Aside from being a rest stop for over 400 species of birds, the sea provides other important natural resources. “Wetlands provide a variety of foods from seeds, flowers, fruits, insects, other invertebrates, fish, rodents, etc. In the desert, wetlands become especially important as water is quite limited,” said Weber.

The Salton Sea has survived because it has been fed with water flowing in from the Colorado River. As water becomes limited, especially for neighboring cities like San Diego. At the end of 2017, water flowing into the sea will have been cut off, and transferred to counties like San Diego.

Within 30 years, the Salton Sea is expected to shrink to about a two-thirds of its current size. According to Alan Hurt, a geology adjunct instructor at COD, “the decrease of water and increased water evaporation, the salt concentration of the water will continue to increase over time thereby threatening fish, birds and wildlife.” While locals could expect some noticeable differences in the environment, Hurt says, “the receding sea will also expose more playa, leading to greater dust emission and posing a public health risk to Imperial and Riverside Counties.”

“Other remaining wetlands are occupied. Human development has altered so much habitat along the coast and inland,” says Weber, “these remaining natural spaces are already occupied by bird populations. Making room for the thousands of birds from the Salton Sea is not easy. Competition for food and space increases, which increases stress levels.”

“Of utmost concern is the Salton Sea’s evaporating body of water is the exposed thousands of acres we refer to as playas,” states Hurt, “these new exposed dry sediment areas around the lake will pose issues in the upcoming years contributing to massive dust storms that will affect the health of the more than 1.5 million people that live close to the sea. As the sediment dries up, it will release small particles that will become airborne, affecting the lungs, heart, and DNA function.”

Students are encouraged to stay informed and educated on these issues. “COD students can and should learn as much as they can about the importance of Natural Resources like the Salton Sea,” stated Leuschner, “they can do that by taking our Conservation of Natural Resources classes (NR 001 lecture and NR 001L Lab) and also taking as many other NR classes as they can.

Developed through leadership of COD, a new initiative called the Salton Sea Education and Research Center Advisory Committee was created to focus on the long and short-term goals for the Salton Sea Education and Research Center. The advisory committee, Co-chaired by Dean Karen Tabor, COD’s School of Math and Science, and Alan Hurt, “brings together K-16 educational partners, public agencies, and business to identify the training, education, and research necessary to provide lasting solutions to benefit the Salton Sea, surrounding environment, and local economy.”


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