The Upshot

Salton Sea: Is it drying up?

The Upshot

The once-thriving sea in southeastern California that was a resort mecca is in danger of becoming an environmental disaster. Interest in the water body, along with a BBC report, caused searches on "Salton Sea" to surge on the Web.

The inland sea, close to Coachella, which may have caught the eye of recent festival attendees, stretches a massive 360 square miles, and is getting smallerand saltier.

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The sea has a long history in the area:  Once part of the Colorado River Delta, the water body holds the dirt that was left when the Grand Canyon was carved out. In places, the sediment is a mile deep, making it, as Michael Cohen, a senior researcher for the Pacific Institute, told Yahoo News, "the anti-Grand Canyon."

For millenia, the Colorado River filled and emptied lakes  that predate the current Salton Sea. Around 1905 the area flooded again, and the Salton Sea was born. The glorious weather coupled with the smooth sea became a mecca for vacationers and sport fishermanand a refuge for millions of  migrating birds.

Today, even though the vacationers have stopped coming and many of the fish have died from the sea's high salt level and poor water quality, the site remains a major stopover for migrating birds.

The sea needs runoff from the farming community to survive—but a 2003 deal diverts water from some of the farms to San Diego County instead. With less water flowing in and a high evaporation rate, the Salton Sea has already shrunk by more than 14 square miles in less than a decade.

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The problem has been studied, but the state is broke, and funds have dried up.  Even the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, a place where people still come to fish tilapia and camp,  is scheduled to close on July 1 due to budget cuts.

As the sea shrinks, dust from the exposed lake bed is blowing toward neighboring Coachella, Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Imperial County, and the Mexican border.

Cohen, who has studied the issue, says the Salton Sea is looking at a major decline in just five-and-a-half years, when the water it gets from agricultural runoff will drop off. With most of California wetlands already gone, that would leave many of the 400 species of birds found at the sea with no place to go, and a scary cloud of dust that would threaten the air quality.

Cohen is pretty sure that the state of California will put off making a decision on the sea's  future—which will come with a multibillion-dollar price tag—as long as possible: "By the time the news cameras descend on the sea in 2018 to broadcast images of dust storms blotting out the sky and thousands of dead birds and fish along its shores, it will be far too late."

Editor's note: This post has been updated to clarify details of the history of the Salton Sea.

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