BRAWLEY, Calif. – A Colorado River drought crisis is looming in California’s Imperial Valley, home to much of the nation’s lettuce, broccoli and other crops, now facing water restrictions. But those cuts will also be bad news for the environmental and ecological disaster unfolding just to the north, in the shallow, shimmering, long-suffering Salton Sea.
“There will be collateral damage everywhere,” said Frank Ruiz, California Audubon’s program director.
Valley farmers rely entirely on water from the Colorado River, which comes through an 80-mile canal, to irrigate their fields. And the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake, relies on water draining from those fields to stay full.
But it has been shrinking for decades, killing fish species that attract migratory birds and exposing a lakebed that creates dust harmful to human health. As the sea receded, it also left behind abandoned homes, shuttered resorts and inland ports that turned the area into a fishing and water sports playground for Southern Californians in the mid-20th century.
Now, with water use cut after two decades of drought have left Colorado’s reservoirs at dangerously low levels, the sea will shrink even faster. “Less water coming to farmers, less water coming to the Salton Sea,” Mr. Ruiz said. “That’s just pure math.
Audubon has a project to protect and improve several hundred acres of wetlands on the eastern seaboard to attract birds to an important migration route. But the stakes are even higher a dozen miles to the south, where a more than $200 million state is creating new wetlands, 4,100 acres of natural habitat carved out of the dry lakebed.
There is a plan to complete more similar projects this decade to restore some sense of environmental normalcy to the sea — if the state can keep up as the water recedes.
“We know we’re going to have to accelerate these projects,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the state’s Salton Sea activities.
The sea has been a slow moving train wreck for years. It was created in 1905 when an engineer attempted to divert part of the Colorado River into a canal. But the diversion was poorly designed and easily overwhelmed, and soon the entire volume of the Colorado began pouring into what was then the Salton Sink, more than 200 feet below sea level. The water flowed for almost two years.
During previous centuries, the sea formed here occasionally as a result of natural changes in the Colorado River. But with little rainfall and few other natural sources of water, it always dried up. This time, however, when settlers arrived and farming began, agricultural drainage water replenished what was lost through evaporation. Which means that as long as the nearby Imperial Valley has fertile soil and irrigation, the lake is likely here to stay.
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Today, the Salton Sea covers about 350 square miles, but its preservation has been a losing battle in recent decades as Imperial Valley farmers have undertaken water conservation efforts after agreeing to transfer some of their water to San Diego and other cities. The effort, which saved about 500,000 acres a year, reduced the flow to the sea. (An acre foot is the amount of water used by two to three households annually.)
Other ways to halt sea decline have been suggested, including a pipeline of seawater from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, an idea that a state-appointed panel of experts recently rejected as too costly and impractical.
Now, to help avert disaster in Colorado, growers here are expected to lose an additional 250,000 acre-feet of water each year.
As the sea has shrunk, it has become so salty – it is now nearly twice as salty as seawater – that only a handful of fish species remain, including tilapia and the endangered desert pupfish. With fewer fish, bird populations have declined along an important migration route.
Human health was also affected. The receding water has exposed vast areas of the lakebed, and the air quality in the Imperial Valley is among the worst in the state, thanks to the wind that blows up the dust. This led to a high incidence of childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases among the valley’s 180,000 residents.
The need to reduce water use in the Colorado River is a contentious issue among the seven states that use it. California, which has the largest allocation, is currently in dispute with other states over how to reduce consumption by up to 40 percent of the river’s annual flow as required by the federal government. A January deadline for a deal has passed without a resolution and the government may be forced to step in and make cuts.
The valley’s water distributor, the Imperial Irrigation District, is itself Colorado’s largest user of water, with rights to about one-quarter of the total annual allocation of all seven states. California officials have offered some cuts, most of which would come from the district. A reduction of 250,000 acres would equal about 8 percent of the district’s allotment.
Scott Emanuelli, president of the Imperial Valley Farm Bureau, said growers have conserved water in the past and were willing to do more if needed. “We’re used to carrying that burden,” Mr. Emanuelli said. Growers would be paid to conserve water, with the money likely coming from the Inflation Reduction Act.
The other Colorado River states complained that California did not offer enough sacrifices. But to Tina Shields, manager of the irrigation district’s water department, the 8 percent reduction is significant.
Ms Shields said the reduction could be achieved by improving irrigation efficiency, which some valley farmers have already done, or by cutting back on hay and other forage. But the reduction is so great that some tuning will probably be needed.
“And that’s a bitter pill word for us,” she said. Fallen farmland means less labor and less spending on supplies and equipment, consequences that would hit the economy in one of the poorer parts of California, where about one in six people already live in poverty. “It’s not good for our community,” Ms Shields said.
But a faster shrinking of the Salton Sea isn’t good either, she said.
“It’s like we’re between a rock and a hard place,” Ms Shields said. “We’re doing a really good thing by becoming more efficient. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, now you have such a negative impact from the Salton Sea that your kids are potentially going to get sick from some really crappy air quality.'”
Mr. Ruiz of California Audubon said he was not interested in the farmers. “They get paid to let their land lie fallow, or they get off their land, or maybe they just reduce the number of crops,” he said. But like Ms. Shields, he worried about the health effects of a more rapidly receding sea.
In addition to protecting wildlife habitat, the Audubon Project aims to tackle this on a small scale for now. The site, about a mile’s hike from the half-abandoned graffiti-filled town of Bombay Beach, across an expanse of barnacle shells and fish bones crunching underfoot, consists of wetlands that emerged when the lake receded.
These spring-fed areas—unusual for the Salton Sea—are now home to small shorebirds that flit in pools among grasses and invasive tamarisks. But without efforts to stabilize them, the wetlands could disappear, said Camila Bautista, program coordinator at Audubon.
“We I want to work with the existing wetland and improve its functions so that the wetland pools can persist,” she said. The plan, which is still in the design phase, would also divert some of the water to adjacent areas of the exposed lake bed to further control dust.
To the south, as part of a state project, bulldozers, graders and trucks are creating new wetlands and rearranging the dried lakebed into habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. When completed later this year, the project will consist of a network of ponds with nesting and “loafing” islands for birds, fed by pumps and a dam dam.
The idea, said Vivien Maisonneuve, program manager for the state Department of Water Resources, is to replicate what’s successful in nature.
There seem to be some signs of success already, with anecdotal reports of increased numbers of pelicans and other birds, including recently a bald eagle. “So it’s coming back,” Mr. Maisonneuve said.
Water will come from the Salton Sea and the New River, the main drainage water route, with the two sources blended to control salinity and naturally occurring selenium, which can build up in the food chain and harm wildlife. By flooding nearly seven square miles of the lakebed, the project will also remove a source of dust.
But just beyond the berms that will hold the water in the new ponds, the Salton Sea continues to shrink, revealing more of the lake floor.
While the state’s plans call for improvements, some as elaborate as the current project, to 30,000 acres of dry lakebed by 2028, estimates suggest about 55,000 more acres will be exposed by midcentury. And that overall likelihood will now be reached even more quickly, with new cuts to the Colorado River’s supply.
The current project offers a constant reminder of what is to come. The pumping station, which takes water from the Salton Sea for new ponds and wetlands, is fed by a ditch that extends three miles into the lake in anticipation of an increasingly dry future. “Even if the sea recedes, the water will be able to reach the pumping station to keep the project running in the future,” Mr Maisonneuve said.