How #California’s #SaltonSea turned from holiday destination to toxic nightmare – Grist

This story is part of the Grist series Driedan in-depth examination of how drought fueled by climate change is reshaping communities, economies and ecosystems.

In the spring of 1905, the Colorado River, overflowing with seasonal rain, overcame an irrigation canal and flooded the site of a dry lake bed in southern California. The flooding, which continued for two years before engineers sealed off the destroyed channel, created an unexpected gem amid California’s arid landscape: the Salton Sea. In the decades that followed, vacationers, water skiers and speedboat enthusiasts flocked to the body of water. The Beach Boys and the Marx Brothers docked their boats at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, which opened in 1959. At the time, it seemed like the Salton Sea and the vibrant communities that had developed around it would be there for centuries to come.

But the golden age of the sea was short-lived. Cut off from the life source that created it – the Colorado River – and supported mostly by limited agricultural runoff from nearby farms, the landlocked body of water has begun to evaporate. The water that remained was becoming increasingly salty and toxic. Tourism has dried up. The smell of rotten eggs, from high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the sea, filled the air. Fish were dying en masse from lack of oxygen, their bones washing up on the beach like sand.

By the 1980s, wealthy, white vacationers had fled. Today, the community is made up mostly of Latino farmhands who work the nearby fields of Imperial County, among California’s poorest counties, and native tribes who have inhabited the area for millennia. They suffer from a unique cocktail of health threats that stem from the Salton Sea.

The body of water is fed by approximately 50 agricultural canals, carrying limited amounts of water infused with pesticides, nitrogen, fertilizers and other agricultural by-products. As a result, the sediments of the brackish lake are loaded with toxins like lead, chromium and DDT. Climate change and the prolonged mega-drought in the western United States are only making these problems worse. The Salton Sea is expected to lose three quarters of its volume by the end of this decade; lower water levels could expose an additional 100,000 acres of lake bottom. The sea surface has already shrunk by about 38 square miles since 2003.

More Parched:

– How tribes in the Colorado River Basin are managing water amid a historic drought

– Feds announce historic water cuts as Colorado River drops to new lows

– How climate change is driving mega-droughts

As the sea dries up and more shorelines are exposed, the high winds that plague this part of California are kicking up chemical dust and blowing it into nearby communities, where an estimated 650,000 people live. Residents complain of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma and other health issues.

“It’s a huge environmental justice issue,” Sierra Club senior campaign representative Jenny Binstock told Grist. “This leads to an increase in asthma attacks, bronchitis, lung disease.” Hospitalization rates for children with asthma in facilities near the sea are nearly double the state average.

Beyond dust, Ryan Sinclair, an environmental microbiologist at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California, is concerned about bioaerosols – tiny airborne particles from plants and animals – that can develop from algae or bacteria in shallow, warm sea water.

“Algae produce algal toxins and bacteria can produce endotoxins,” he said, “and both can aerosolize and blow into nearby communities.” When researchers exposed mice to aerosolized Salton Sea water, the mice developed a “unique type of asthma,” Sinclair noted. He currently works with communities around the Salton Sea to measure and document nutrient and algae levels in the water, which is not currently done by state or federal agencies. “Something has to be done about it,” he said.

But the solutions are limited. Raised dust can be suppressed, to some extent, through habitat restoration projects. The first-ever large-scale Salton Sea restoration project, a network of ponds across 30,000 acres of lake bed, is due to start this year. But the project does not replace the obvious: the sea is rapidly shrinking and it needs a new infusion of water to survive. “A perfect solution for the Salton Sea – in a world where we have an abundance of water and more reliable hydrological cycles – is that we would just fill this thing up,” said Binstock, of the Sierra Club.

But there is no water to be had. One proposal is to ship salt water from Mexico’s Sea of ​​Cortez, 125 miles south, but Binstock isn’t so sure the benefits of that plan outweigh the harms. “The huge investments in physical infrastructure, the disruption to the playa and the impacts on public health and the environment, the costs are just…it’s pretty paltry to think about,” she said.

Last week, an independent review panel appointed by the state to assess viable long-term dust suppression options for the Salton Sea advised against importing water from the Sea of ​​Cortez or any another body of salt water nearby. Instead, the panel recommended the state build a desalination plant next to the sea to gradually filter out some of the lake’s salinity. He also suggested paying farmers in Imperial County not to plant their fields, which would allow more water to reach the sea from the Colorado River instead of being siphoned off by the farmers. Both strategies would slowly replenish the sea with fresh water, revive its aquatic ecosystems, and allow the sea to “return to being a jewel in the California desert, and a place that others will want to visit and live beside,” the panel summarizes. says the report.

Mariela Loera, policy advocate at the California-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, doesn’t see an adequate long-term solution to the problem. She has worked for years with the communities surrounding the Salton Sea. Dust suppression efforts and habitat restoration projects are a useful band-aid, she said, “but ideally there’s a long-term solution for clean water.”

Meanwhile, the bountiful brine of the Salton Sea presents an unexpected opportunity: a boon to lithium, the highly sought-after metal.

Lithium is the key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries and clean energy storage, but it is also in short supply. Lithium prices have soared around 400% this year as the global appetite for electric vehicles has grown and companies have been increasingly desperate to find new sources of the metal. The State of California estimates that the Salton Sea contains enough lithium to meet America’s total appetite, now and in the future, and 40% more global demand.

Loera and other local groups recognize the importance of the sea’s lithium reserves, but say communities impacted by the region’s toxic dust and algal blooms need justice before mining can begin. . “Many residents have questions about potential impacts,” Loera said. The extraction of lithium requires large quantities of water. Would this water come from the limited supply of the sea? And what impacts would mining have on the state’s ongoing habitat restoration and dust suppression efforts? These and other questions raised by the community have yet to be adequately answered. “There is a lack of community engagement in the decision-making process to date,” she said. “We need to have this conversation: how are we going to continue this green transition, but in an environmentally just way?”

About Edward Fries

Check Also

Gilbert the robot fish sucks up microplastics in the water while swimming

The winner of the first natural robotics competition not only swims in the water like …