'Farm To City' Deal To Dry Out Stretches Of California's Legendary Salton Sea

Dec 29, 2017
Originally published on December 29, 2017 9:02 am

California's legendary Salton Sea may need an epitaph soon, thanks to a "farm to city" water deal that takes full effect in 2018. The controversial deal redirects most of the water that now sustains the Salton Sea to thirsty towns and cities. As a result, in the years ahead, more than a third of the 350-square-mile lake in the deserts of southeastern California is expected to dry up and blow away.

Mitigation experts with the state of California say they're working hard to minimize the environmental side effects of the giant water transfer deal. But critics say the mitigation plan is falls far short of what's needed to protect this former tourist mecca from the impact of the coming water transfer.

By all accounts the Salton Sea has fallen on hard times since the 1950s and the 1960s, when the resort communities that lined the Salton Sea drew tourists by the millions, as well as celebrities like Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, the Marx Brothers, Sonny Bono and the Beach Boys.

"They called it the Desert Riviera then," said Steven Johnson, a bartender in the tiny town of Bombay Beach. "There were nine marinas, there was swimming, fishing and speed boat racing. It was where you wanted to be."

Unfortunately, since the late 1970s, the Desert Riviera has been ravaged by what Johnson calls a "slow-motion apocalypse." Hotels and marinas were ruined by floods, then left high and dry by drought. Giant, stinky algae blooms linked to farm pollutants drove people out of the water. Rising salinity levels linked to evaporation helped kill nearly all the fish. Traces of everything from DDT to arsenic have been detected in the mud beneath the lake, and in dried-out stretches of lakebed exposed by drought.

State and federal plans to solve these kinds of problems have fizzled repeatedly over the years. Critics of the farm to city water transfer say it's likely to make will make all the problems worse. Environmental groups like the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife say the deal could be disastrous for hundreds of species of migratory birds that roost and feed at the Salton Sea. Many of those species are already in decline.

Meanwhile, public health groups are predicting an air pollution crisis arguing that dust clouds from the shrinking sea pose a threat to people living all over the southeastern part of California. Towns and cities near the Salton Sea already have some of the highest asthma rates and worst air problems in the country, thanks in part to everything from agricultural burning to the heavy desert winds. These groups argue that as the Salton Sea shrinks more than 70,000 acres of lakebed laced with toxins will dry out and turn into dust that gets picked up by windstorms.

"We don't know how dangerous those dust clouds are and that's not right," said Luis Olmedo of Comte Civico del Valle, a non-profit public health group based in Brawley, which is near the Salton Sea. "We don't want to be part of an experiment."

In August, after years of trying, California lawmakers unveiled a $383 million plan to minimize the impact of the water transfer deal. The plan's not fully funded yet but if the funding does come through, it will encircle what's left of the Salton Sea with thousands of acres worth of managed wetlands and fresh water fish ponds. That will help protect the birds and keep the dust clouds down.

"It'll look a little like a donut," said Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary for Salton Sea Policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. "We like to say that we are developing a smaller and more sustainable Salton Sea."

Wilcox says he knows that are many people who yearn for a return to the glory days of the Salton Sea. But he says those glory days are gone.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The biggest lake in California was once a famed desert oasis. But now the Salton Sea is shrinking. And that's partly because of evaporation. But also, its water is being redirected elsewhere thanks to a controversial deal. And that means the lake may soon be dry. John Nielsen has the story.

JOHN NIELSEN, BYLINE: In the 1950s and the 1960s, tourists swarmed the shores of California's Salton Sea, which is actually a 350-square-mile lake in the southeastern corner of the state. There were nine marinas then. There were fancy restaurants, and there were stars like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here is truly a miracle in the desert, a whole new outlet for the crowd of millions in big cities, a Palm Springs with water...

NIELSEN: Unfortunately, since the late 1970s, the place once called the Desert Riviera has been battered by floods, baked by drought and poisoned by agricultural pollutants. Fish killed by algae blooms line some of the beaches. Abandoned resorts look like the sets of zombie movies. But the biggest blow of all could be the one that hits as the rivers that now sustain the Salton Sea shrink to a trickle. That's thanks to a farm-to-city water transfer deal that directs the water in those rivers to booming urban areas near San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

NIELSEN: Critics say this deal could prove disastrous for hundreds of species of migratory birds that roost and feed in places like the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

NIELSEN: Al Kalin is a local farmer.

AL KALIN: There aren't as many as there used to be. The great blue herons are - they're pretty much - used to be where you could see a hundred great blue herons along the shore in one spot. Anymore - you're lucky to see one or two.

NIELSEN: Others have been warning of an air pollution crisis, arguing that dust clouds from the shrinking sea pose a threat to people living all over the southeastern part of California.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You guys can make a line over here, so I can get your email and your name.

NIELSEN: Concerned citizens who've heard those warnings recently filled a meeting room in the headquarters of Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit public health group in the desert town of Brawley. Caroline Garcia brought along her children.

CAROLINE GARCIA: This is Damien Garcia. He has asthma and allergies. And then Desmond Garcia also has asthma but without allergies.

NIELSEN: Towns like Brawley already have some of the highest asthma rates and worst air pollution problems in the country. Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico says the salt and sea dust storms will make those problems worse, noting that traces of everything from DDT to arsenic have been detected in the dried-out lakebeds.

LUIS OLMEDO: It's like we're going to a Class 1 landfill - a toxic landfill - to expose it and just let the wind carry it to our community. That's really what's happening.

NIELSEN: In August, after years of trying, California lawmakers unveiled a $383 million plan to minimize the impact of the water transfer deal. The plan would encircle what's left of the Salton Sea with thousands of acres worth of managed wetlands and freshwater fish ponds.

BRUCE WILCOX: We like to say that we're creating a smaller but sustainable lake or Salton Sea.

NIELSEN: Bruce Wilcox is the state official charged with implementing the mitigation plan, which has not yet been fully funded. If the funding does come through, Wilcox thinks it should be enough to keep the dust down and protect the birds. Wilcox says he does know people who dream of a return to the glory days of the Desert Riviera. But he says the glory days are gone.

For NPR News, I'm John Nielsen, Brawley, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "WANDERERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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