Why California’s Biggest Lake Is Dying
Credit Frank Foster
California’s biggest lake, about 350 square miles, is dying.
It’s not the first time. The Salton Sea, straddling the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, is the latest incarnation of a body of water that has been drying and refilling over eons with water from the Colorado River.
Native Americans once fished and camped on Lake Cahuilla, a prehistoric and larger version.
The Salton Sea was born in the early 1900s after a canal burst sent water from the Colorado flooding into the valley over a period of two years.
Beginning in the 1950s, entrepreneurs transformed it into a tourist mecca, building marinas and resorts. There were beauty pageants and boat races. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra visited.
But in time, runoff pollution, drought and blistering heat conspired to end the fun. As the saline lake evaporated, its salt concentration soared, killing fish en masse. The blooming and decomposition of algae had a powerful stench.
Today, the Salton Sea is surrounded by abandoned buildings.
For people fighting to revitalize it, there are two big concerns, said Michael Cohen, a researcher with the Pacific Institute, a water-policy think tank.
One is dust. The receding water is exposing vast areas of the lake floor that, if unabated, could kick up more than 100 tons of dust every day by 2045, scientists say. (This winter’s bountiful rain largely avoided the Salton Sea).
The particles are so fine that they cannot be coughed up, threatening the health of local children whose asthma rates lead the state.
The other is the threat to wildlife. The Salton Sea is a precious way station for more than 400 species of migrating birds.
Part of the solution, said Mr. Cohen, lies in restoring habitat — essentially moving earth around in ways that keeps the dust from flying while providing the birds with places to stop and refuel.
A $9.6 billion revitalization plan endorsed by state officials has been on the back burner for years.
Mr. Cohen said he was often asked why we don’t just let nature take its course.
“Are we fighting nature? Yes,” he said.
But, he said, pristine wilderness really no longer exists — all of California is manipulated in some way by humans. “So from that perspective,” he said, “we need to make sure those places that are valuable for wildlife are preserved.”
Frank Foster, a photography instructor at Victor Valley College in Victorville, has been capturing images of the Salton Sea for years. He shared some with us.
Dry lake bed in Red Hill Marina County Park at the southern end of the Salton Sea in December 2015. Credit Frank Foster
Off roader tracks at the Red Hill Marina County Park in 2013. Credit Frank Foster
An abandoned residence in Niland, just east of the Salton Sea, last month. Credit Frank Foster
A view from Salton Sea Beach, a tiny town on the western shore of the Salton Sea, in March 2015. Credit Frank Foster
The Salton Sea’s Bombay Beach in early 2015. Credit Frank Foster