This article is to be featured in the April issue of the Birding magazine.
It’s Thanksgiving Day. Instead of preparing to argue about Trump at the dinner table, I’m in my own political conundrum: I’m at the Salton Sea. No turkeys are to be found, unless you count the lines of pelicans and gulls scattered across the water. In fact, nothing remotely reminiscent of pilgrims and feasts is in sight. I glance out at the Sea as the sun rises, at the pink and purple swabs fading in and out of the glowing water, mesmerized by gentle flow and ebb of birds flying from their roosts to their feeding grounds for the day. It’s hard for me to fathom that all this is disappearing—and the Salton Sea is disappearing, as the sound of crunching salt under your feet is quick to remind you. Piles of dried fish, held in their death throes by the salt, are an ominous memento mori omnipresent among the noisy birds and tourists. I pick one up and run my fingers up and down the browned scales. Embarrassingly, I feel a distant pang of hunger - it’s Thanksgiving, after all. However, it’s also a gruesome reminder that nothing lasts forever—including the Sea.
When you’re in the throes of the spell the Salton Sea casts on you, it might be hard to understand why anyone would be overjoyed at its disappearance. Yet there are plenty who are. “Salton Sea Disappearing? Good Riddance,” reads one blog post written by a self-declared wildlife lover. Others call for the opposite, pushing for intensive conservation efforts to be directed toward the Sea and its shrinking coasts.
Part of the controversy is explained by what many view as a sketchy history: For all its wondrous biodiversity, the Salton Sea is not all natural. Its accidental creation was a blip by the California Development Company’s attempts to construct an irrigation canal—the Great Diversion of 1905—which helps explains the raging disagreements on what to exactly do with the Sea. And raging they are: Triumphant victories for the Sea, such as a recent granting for $14 million to Salton Sea conservation, alternate between dismal blows in what is a constant and costly battle that the Sea doesn’t have time to fight.
And yet all this takes place under the radar: public opinion on the Sea is next to nonexistent. To get an idea on what people thought of the Salton Sea, I surveyed two groups of people -- one: dedicated, knowledgeable, bird lovers, and two: my peers in a Southern California high school, all top students in academia. The results were unanimously disappointing. Straight A students, who, though they had a passing interest in nature, were self-declared stewards of the environment, knew little of the Sea. “Wait, does the Salton Sea even exist?” one student, the top of his class, queried, while others knew nothing other of the sea, other than the fact that it was there. Birders fared only slightly better. Although the greater part (unlike my peers) replied that they cared more about the Salton Sea after reading information provided in the survey about wildlife viewing opportunities, most knew nothing of its conservation. Many had heard of the Sea on the TV and news only in the context of the recent earthquake threats. Of course, those who live far from Imperial County, where the Sea is located, are somewhat justified in their ignorance. But for a place that’s supposedly a once famed recreation and wildlife area, the coverage on its conservation seems to have had pitiful reach.
Part of my trip to the Salton Sea this Thanksgiving was to reminisce on the issue myself. From the quiet Northern shores, to Salt Creek, a place renowned for overwintering Yellow-footed Gulls, to the south tip of the Sea, where Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plovers hide in the agricultural fields and Bermudagrass, one thing is clear to me. If a single word summarizes the Salton Sea, dead, which survey participants listed as a descriptor more than any other word, certainly isn’t an option. Besides being a hotbed for birds found elsewhere in California with difficulty, such as Neotropic Cormorant and Stilt Sandpiper, the Salton Sea provides the Californian wintering ranges for birds such as Wood Stork and Sandhill Crane, interior breeding ranges for birds like the California Brown Pelican, and migration stopovers for millions of birds passing through Imperial County, not to mention that prized rarities such as Black-tailed Gull are liable to pop up. But listing these species does nothing. You have to be there; standing, at the Sea, or kayaking, or your preferred methods of transport, and you have to see to believe; you have to watch five-thousand Ring-billed Gulls, five hundred Whimbrels, and fifty Cattle Egrets lift off an agricultural field, and a thousand Sandhill Cranes and three hundred Snow Geese fly over with a great ruckus, and line after line of hundreds of pelican flying from roost to feeding ground, to know that is alive. What the Salton Sea is not is alive and well. Underneath the seeming paradise of the sea lurks a sinister hand. Avian botulism, encouraged by algae and massive amounts of tilapia corpses, is quick to kill. In 1996, 15,000 birds died from botulism, including 1,900 California Brown Pelicans. As the unstoppable tilapia dieoff continues and bacteria festers in their corpses, colonies are pushed closer and closer to the verge of outbreak.
For those bird lovers who enjoy the Salton Sea so much, and for those who look forward to visiting it in the future, then, the dilemma remains: whether to support the challenge of its conservation with vigor, or to simply enjoy the sea for what it is, while it still exists.
Most birders, when confronted with this question, appear to be in agreement. The situation seems simple -- what could be so controversial about preserving a critical bird area? Sure, the Salton Sea is no Disneyland for the average tourist, and its desert-meets-Central-Valley persona may not be too appealing, but what other birding place in the nation has the same uniqueness; the same special biodiversity? And they’re right: conservationists share a general consensus on the importance of the Salton Sea for birds from pelicans to terns. But the important question to ask is why the Salton Sea has become so important to bird conservation. Surely the birds that inhabit the sea today weren’t just nonexistent a century ago, before its inadvertent birth. Had humans actually (accidentally) done something right for the environment this time?
The answer is not so simple. First, the creation of the Salton Sea coincided with the elimination of over half of California’s wetlands, which left many bird populations with nowhere to go. With more direct implications for the Salton Sea was the deterioration of the Colorado River delta. At its height, the delta was a conservation hotspot supporting bird populations far exceeding the sea. When it dried up, those populations that relied on it for food, breeding, wintering, and migration made the switch to the Sea as their new home. Some -- including one aforementioned birder who says “good riddance to the sea” -- insist that conservation of the river delta is the real important problem at hand, and trying to save the Sea would simply divert water that should go to the delta instead. On the other hand, restoration of the river delta takes time, and time is something the birds of the Salton Sea do not have. Those who have been to the Sea, walked on its receded shorelines and orange pools littered with dead fish, and wondered why are the birds are still here, has probably felt that tug; that sense of urgency.
The time to make a decision is running short.
Already, pesticide-laden agricultural water flows into the Salton Sea at a dismal rate, threatening the protected wetlands at the south end of the sea and leaving 13,500 train loads worth of salt behind each year. Yet, in a mocking Catch-22, this runoff (as well as some leach water also from farmland), is what keeps the Salton Sea’s water level stable now that Colorado River water has hit its capacity. This year, the future of the sea has been rewritten: as a new 2017 measure, inflows will go to San Diego instead of their current destination to the Sea, fated for luxuries like bathrooms and swimming pools. To further add insult to injury, though conservation of water and tech improvements in farming -- farming that relies on the favorable microclimate the Sea creates -- is a good thing, it has cut on the inflow rates that keep the water levels up. It’s a paradox of wildlife, agriculture, and urban development, and noone has any one good plan to solve it. Even those who agree that the the drying up of the Sea is a mistake to be avoided at all costs disagree on how exactly to accomplish that goal.
Wildlife lovers aren’t the only ones concerned about the future of the Sea, however: health officials and residents have more to fear. At the bottom of the Sea’s bed lies a layer of muck laden with toxins such as DDT and highly concentrated PCP, built from decades of contaminated agricultural inflows. The drying water threatens not only to release a torrent of dust that could cause breathing problems, but also all the century-old chemicals lodged in it. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen what can happen when dust and chemicals from agricultural inflows is blown in the air. In 2014, the East Basin of the Aral Sea dried up after having existed for 600 years.Centuries worth of polluted soil immediately blew onto the surrounding fields, causing a host of problems for the farmers, who suddenly found their crops in danger of contamination, and residents, who faced breathing problems. To avoid a similar precarity with the Salton Sea, scientists are racing to implement bioremediation programs to remove all the toxins from the muck at the seabottom. The future looks bleak: at the current rate the Sea is disappearing, they may not be able to remove enough in time.
But as always, doing something is better than doing nothing. The conservation of the Salton Sea is not impossible. Preserving the sea would require neither massive importations of Colorado River water or drastic farming revolutions. Instead, simple measures that are both easy and low-cost can be taken to help preserve the dwindling waters. It starts at home: the locally organized Red Hill Bay Restoration Project blends dilute Alamo River water with salty Salton Sea water to create a more habitable environment, while other efforts restore wasting wetland habitat for birds and fish. These programs offer inhabitants of the Sea temporary relief as rising salinity encroaches onto livable conditions.
Long-term solutions are sadly not so simple. All fingers point to the Colorado River when it comes to saving the sea. Yet, anyone who has studied the complex politics of Colorado water usage realizes that when it comes to a decade-long solution to saving the sea, the river is not where to look. It is not only unnecessary to import large amounts of Colorado River water to the sea, but impossible following a 2003 contract between California and other states called the Qualification Settlement Agreement (QSA) cutting down on the amount of Colorado River water allocated to California. Many also hold the opinion that any Colorado River water shuttled to the sea would be far more useful going to the Colorado River Delta, which, if restored to its former heights, would support far more wildlife than the sea. With the Colorado River no longer an option, a solution for the sea seems hard to come by, but hope can be found in a surprising place: the Qualification Settlement Agreement itself. The QSA wasn’t just a cutdown on Colorado River water: it also promoted water allocation to the sea through the local agricultural organization, Imperial Irrigation District. Further water projects by the IID and other bodies are the last measure for the sea. The sea is parched, and it will take every drop of water it can get, agricultural or otherwise, for its future.
And what that future is, is still unknown. As conservation efforts stall, the Salton Sea creeps along in its slow death. From the moment of its birth, the sea was at once both a anomaly and a continuation in a long series of sporadic flooding of the Salton Basin. Its role is unclear; its existence and place in the world an issue far more complex than what it appears to be the case on the surface. The fight to save the sea is, too, a tangled web that may be broken at any minute; a careful balance between agriculture, ecosystem, urban development, public opinion, and recreation. Go there this year. See the birds, the scenery, the strange beauty. Celebrate the birds and cherish the memory. You may be witnessing the last decade of the Salton Sea as we know it.
Postnote: This article was written in November 2016. Since 2017, articles enacting Salton Sea inflows to be redirected to San Diego urban development have already taken effect.