Dust Rising
June 9, 2018 9:37 AM   Subscribe

The Salton Sea used to be an ecological marvel, but now it's literally dying. The impact on neighbors and elsewhere is breath-taking in the worst sense.
posted by Alensin (40 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This was… not the article I wanted to read at 4 in the morning. The detail is pretty horrific, and I'm saddened by our seeming inability to do anything substantive about it.
posted by Alensin at 9:39 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

99pi has a good episode about Salton Sea’s formation and problems over time.
posted by crysflame at 9:52 AM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I liked the article's comparison to Owens Lake, for what it looks like 20+ years later when it's been dry for awhile. Also its acknowledgment of the poverty of the area; most of the folks living there don't have many options.

Some history worth knowing; the Great Flood of 1862, when 6000 square miles of the Central Valley flooded along with a lot of the rest of the basins in the West. There aren't a lot of great records from this era so I don't know if the Imperial Valley flooded then too. This projection of a similar hypothetical event suggests maybe not.
posted by Nelson at 10:02 AM on June 9, 2018

Wow, watch that super cheerful Miracle in the Desert promotional film embedded in that page. It's got the same tone as the video that Chris is forced to watch in Get Out.
posted by octothorpe at 10:02 AM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

This projection of a similar hypothetical event suggests maybe not.

Me: Ha ha, I don't live in the Central Valley anymore, I live in the mountains, suck it!
*looks at map*
Me: Oh right. Now I live in an endorheic basin (much like the Salton Sea). Shit.

Also John Waters narrated a documentary about the history of and people living near the Salton Sea back in 2004: Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea. There's also a doc about the Salton Sea community of Bombay Beach.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:09 AM on June 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

I case you're interested in seeing the two photos of "Godzilla" mentioned by the article but not shown, you can find them at Randy Brown's site, along with photos of Godzilla in its heyday.
posted by rlk at 10:15 AM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Beat me by 4 minutes, rlk! Lots of other related stuff at that site; well worth a visit.
posted by TedW at 10:20 AM on June 9, 2018

This is a health crisis. Obviously they should fix the lake, but why is there no mention of funding for those who'd like to leave this dangerous area for a safer one. I'm not saying force people by any means, but the idea of having to live your life and raise kids somewhere you know may well give them avoidable lifelong conditions and then exacerbate those conditions because you can't afford to move is abhorrent.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2018 [17 favorites]

After spending time at Randy Brown's site, it appears he is a bit of an asshole:
...The State of California has done VIRTUALLY NOTHING to “Save Salton Sea” or at least prevent the impending toxic dust storms..This is partially because the clowns in Sacramento don’t care/can’t do their jobs, and because of funding..
HOWEVER, The State of California has found billions of dollars to build “the worlds slowest bullet train to Bakersfield, that nobody will ever use” as well as subsidize illegal aliens, etc.. This is partially why it’s political..

posted by TedW at 10:33 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

One can't escape the shadow of el Trumpo, it seems. :(
posted by Alensin at 10:37 AM on June 9, 2018

I know this isn't the main point of the article, but fuck asthma.
posted by Gorgik at 10:55 AM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

"After spending time at Randy Brown's site, it appears he is a bit of an asshole:"

Yeah, there is no saving the Salton Sea. It's not supposed to be there. Only wasting enormous amounts of precious water would even delay the inevitable.

One thing the article glosses over when listing the various contributors to the lousy air quality in the region is the massive sprawling warehouse and distribution centers at the other end of the area. You can see them flying into LA from the east. The endless numbers of big rigs lined up next to the enormous buildings look like passenger cars parked next to big shopping malls. They're a big contributor to air pollution on top of what comes from the Salton Sea.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:01 AM on June 9, 2018 [16 favorites]

As they say, California is always a glimpse of ten years into the future.
posted by JamesBay at 11:05 AM on June 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Informative and terrifying.
posted by the thought-fox at 11:09 AM on June 9, 2018

I agree, Hairy Lobster, the article framing this in the larger context of climate change is a little disingenuous from the perspective that this body of water is not naturally there, and the cycle of floods and drying lakes is not new to the Salton Basin. But agricultural run-off is probably making this cycle more cataclysmic to the health of the humans and animal wildlife surrounding the sea and throwing up our hands and saying "never should've been there in the first place," is a little overly cold response.

What boggles my mind, a little bit, is that while the resorts have died, a little googling of census data reveals a lot of the nearby towns have had significant population growth over the past three decades. Salton City, while shrinking in 2000 to 900 residents, is now over 4,000 by estimates thanks to road improvements and a new casino. Coachella itself has doubled in size. I feel like as soon as the San Diego water deal was signed, if not legally able to restrict relocation into the area, it was irresponsible of Imperial County to do anything other than warn every person looking at signing a lease or mortgage with 40 miles of the original coastline that this was not likely going to not be a Superfund site in 30 years.
posted by midmarch snowman at 11:22 AM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Always mentally categorised the same for me, the Aral Sea bed has some people planting (indigenous scrubland) trees in it in the bits where they haven't managed to dam it off and renew the fish catch (previously).
posted by ambrosen at 11:31 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

A lot of the desert adventures I talk about happened around the north-east end of the Salton Sea in the box canyons and mountains that rise up into what is loosely defined as The Mojave Narrows. I also know folks who go to Slab City, and I won't go there because I've already seen too much of the Salton Sea.

And it wasn't even as bad as it is now in the article, in the days that I saw it about as recently as 9 years ago. It's one of the most obviously dead places I've ever personally seen.

It's really unsettling and surreal to be in the area around the lake. It's worse than a moonscape because of all the obvious signs of previous life, the weird algae and slimes and bacterial mats that are still alive in the highly salty environment mixing with the death of piles of dried, slowly decomposing fish carcasses and matter, or piles of bones and feathers from birds. The stink is often acrid and verging on physically painful to breath, like being mildly tear gassed with every breath.

When it's crazy hot out and the stink and sulfur is way up, the air will actually sting your eyes and make you squint.

Even fairly far away from the Salton Sea, but related through hydrology and land misuse I've been on scouting missions for renegade desert parties and we've definitely nixed locations that were geographically suitable, but we didn't like the look of the soil or the smell in the air because it looked like old mining tailings or other wastes. Or even dry lakes that were obviously just too uncomfortably salty and alkaline, often from farm or mining runoff.

Yeah, no - the sand probably shouldn't have shades of green and blue in it, and we probably shouldn't throw an all night dance party in this weird, bad place where people will be kicking up and breathing the dust all night long.

Also vaguely related: The Great Flood of 1862. A lot of people don't know this about California, but the greatest recurring, regularly scheduled natural disaster isn't earthquakes, fires or even the odd volcano. No, it's the gigantic Biblical flood that happens every few hundred years or so that fills up all those dry lakes and basins. There's a reason why the San Joaquin Valley is one of the largest floodplains and dry lakes in the world. That whole basin occasionally fills up with water on some very short geological time scales.
posted by loquacious at 11:35 AM on June 9, 2018 [20 favorites]

Yeah, we do need to figure out how to mitigate the Salton Sea's current and future local health effects, and we can't allow toxic dust to become a serious issue. The Salton Sea does also serve as wildlife habitat to a certain extent (although we'd be better served by restoring/recreating coastal wetland habitats, not artificial desert lakes). But on an ecological level, it makes no sense to pour money and water into an evaporative basin. This doesn't mean we do nothing, but I see no value in the literal restoration of a historically impermanent lake that, by human accident, was recently revived on a small scale.

To me, the Salton Sea is merely an accelerant to a major problem that we'll have to deal with no matter what, which is how to evacuate and repurpose that entire Imperial/Coachella Valley region. It's a naturally itinerant place; it always has been. For instance, prior to white colonization, local tribes such as the Cahuilla and Chemehuevi were effectively nomadic, so it wasn't a big deal for them to respond to the births and deaths of Lake Cahuilla's previous natural iterations. But how do we deal with itinerant places in 2018, in an culture in which all housing and agricultural infrastructure is framed as permanent? So far we have not figured this out at all, but we're going to have to.

Like, the Imperial/Coachella Valley region currently makes next to no sense. The Imperial Valley is a desert, and yet it's a huge ag area (that in fact produces something absurd like 2/3rds of the nation's produce in winter months). Spoiler alert, an ag area that relies entirely on pumped-in irrigation is not sustainable in the long term. Agriculture there is going to have to be phased out, presumably in favor of large-scale energy farms. If we were smart and willing to accept economic pain now instead of at a later date, we might be planning to gradually ramp down ag production, and start providing current residents with an education fund, job training programs, and relocation aid. Assuming we found a way to at least partly mitigate the Salton Sea dust issue, such that it's not transferring toxic dust to coastal cities, this would stop the "sea" from becoming an ever-worsening public health threat, as well as prevent a huge water crisis from triggering the region's sudden economic shutdown. But realistically, nothing will be done until a crisis occurs and lands us a messy, painful, and expensive climate refugee situation.

Truly, in anticipation of the loss of climate stability, we ought to be imagining what internal resettlement programs as well as itinerant/non-permanent residency looks like almost everywhere in the world, not just in areas where this going to become an issue relatively fast. But again, realistically, that won't happen until we are forced to make it happen.
posted by desert outpost at 2:57 PM on June 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

"...and throwing up our hands and saying "never should've been there in the first place," is a little overly cold response."

My bad for not being more specific. I meant this in regards to the lake itself and it's current state only. I'm absolutely for putting in place mitigating measures and policies for those affected. But I'm afraid the only way of doing this in a way that makes sense is to offer aid and incentives that help with and encourage resettling and help with medical costs and treatment. The lake itself is a lost cause and living next to it or near it is just not a good idea. I didn't mean to sound cold with regards to the residents and want them to be helped.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:09 PM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Re: Imperial Valley history, here's a well-done timeline beginning in 1849. (Click the SDSU link at the end of the intro for details.)

It particularly outlines attempts to stop the Salton 'flooding' ... which pretty much continues until completion of the Boulder Dam in 1935.

More history links:
Alamo Canal
1922 Colorado Compact
New River
All-American Canal
Accidental Sea (short video)

Another related, interesting read: Tulare Lake.
posted by Twang at 5:46 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I used to work as a technical editor for air quality scientists who studied the Salton Sea and that shit is NASTY. The exposed lake bed contains chemicals from many decades of agricultural runoff, including stuff that was banned long ago for good reason. IIRC, the people living downwind don't just have astronomically higher asthma rates but also elevated cancer rates as well. :(

Shortly before leaving that job, I helped them win a $300,000 research grant to study the dust mitigation effects of solar panels. Their idea was that perhaps instead of tearing up pristine desert habitat of endangered tortoises etc to build power plants, we could place solar farms on top of dried up lake beds and the panels would slow the wind down enough to drastically cut the amount of dust being spewed. Their mathematical models said it should work. I should check in with them and find out if it ended up working IRL because that would be pretty neat.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:12 PM on June 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Actually reading the article now and this almost feels like a personal shout out:
"It will continue to shrink and concentrate until it becomes almost barren. (One official suggested to me that the exposed earth could be used to build a solar power farm.)"

The official almost certainly got that idea from the research done by my dudes at DRI using the money from the grant they won after I got frustrated by the three prior rejections and spent a weekend all hopped up on adderall rewriting the proposal from scratch. Our PI was depressed and wasn't gonna submit it anymore and I handed it to him on Monday and said "make sure the science is correct" and he said "fine we'll try it your way" and we submitted it on Tuesday (the deadline) and six months later I won our long-running argument over whether style, presentation, salesmanship, etc matter in science (they do) to the tune of $300,000 and he actually said he was wrong and I was right and it was awesome.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:30 PM on June 9, 2018 [50 favorites]

I really hope this article raises the profile of the problem enough to shake loose some money. Our PI would get so emotional talking about the people living in Imperial Valley and how they'd basically been abandoned to choke to death on dust because they were poor and nobody gave a shit. I thought he was gonna start crying right there in the office. :(

We stayed late on many a night trying to find grant programs in research areas that we could somehow cram a Salton Sea angle into. That the largest sum we finally won came at it from the direction of solar energy power plant placement should give you some idea of how creative we had to get. Maybe the funding situation has improved since then but 7+ years ago it was pretty bleak.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:39 PM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

After spending time at Randy Brown's site, it appears he is a bit of an asshole

Eh, in my experience, everyone who gets really deep into the politics and economics of the Salton Sea problem eventually ends up frothing mad about it because it truly does appear as if the government consciously made the decision to just abandon the people living in Imperial Valley to die.

Yeah, there is no saving the Salton Sea. It's not supposed to be there.

By what standard? My understanding was that it was ecologically stable before the rivers feeding it were diverted.

I agree there's no realistic way to save it now -- the LA area isn't going to let go of that water -- but this isn't a natural disaster that was inevitable. Natural resources were consciously reallocated from one community to another.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:01 PM on June 9, 2018

One thing the article glosses over when listing the various contributors to the lousy air quality in the region is the massive sprawling warehouse and distribution centers at the other end of the area.

IIRC, traffic like that generates the kind of air pollution that eventually gives you cancer, whereas the dust is the kind of air pollution that is most responsible for asthma attacks. Something to do with particulate size.

So both are bad but the Salton Sea is more relevant to an article focused on why people are dropping dead of asthma attacks.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:14 PM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Abandoned Bombay Beach Drive-In explored
posted by hortense at 8:20 PM on June 9, 2018

My understanding was that it was ecologically stable before the rivers feeding it were diverted.

You're probably thinking of the Aral Sea, the other famously dying desert lake, from which the USSR diverted the feeding rivers to support cotton agriculture in Central Asia. The Salton Sea is basically the opposite situation, formed when canals diverting water into a dry desert lakebed overflowed and led to the entire Colorado River flow going into that lake off and on for several years in the 1900's (wiki).
posted by 3urypteris at 8:42 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Back in the 1990s and after he had left his mark on the copyright laws of the land, Sonny Bono was pretty close to solving the Salton Sea problems as he represented Palm Springs, just on the other side of the hills west of the Salton.
But he was a better legislator than skier and so... that set things back another 25 years. But they named the bird sanctuary/wetlands on the southeast part of the sea after him as a tribute anyways. Come to think of it, I can't be certain those lands are still wet. Some cool mud pots in the same area though and they are sure to still work, because San Andres Fault.
Lastly, Bombay Beach is no longer abandoned. Like most everywhere else thats cheap to live, its been gentrified.
posted by Fupped Duck at 10:48 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

After spending time at Randy Brown's site, it appears he is a bit of an asshole

Eh, in my experience, everyone who gets really deep into the politics and economics of the Salton Sea problem eventually ends up frothing mad about it because it truly does appear as if the government consciously made the decision to just abandon the people living in Imperial Valley to die.

I understand his frustration, but it was the jab at immigrants that struck me as gratuitous.
posted by TedW at 4:38 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The water level in the Salton Sea influences activity on the San Andreas Fault over geologic time. Researchers at the Scripps Institute used sonar in the Salton Sea, LIDAR to map the surrounding landscape, and core samples around and under the lake to understand the history of earthquakes in the region.
The San Andreas Fault is west of the Imperial Fault, and there are a series of smaller transverse faults that transfer stress between the two larger features. The weight of water can alter how the stress is transferred and act as a trigger for large earthquakes on the San Andreas.
The Salton Sea covers a structural boundary at the southern end of the San Andreas Fault where it takes a southwestward step to the Imperial Fault. The region is closely monitored because the last large earthquake on this section of the San Andreas occurred approximately 300 years ago and the fault is considered by many experts to be overdue for another.
By imaging beneath the Salton Sea, the study identified the key role of stepover faults that run at an angle to the San Andreas Fault. The smaller faults rupture relatively frequently and, at times, they ruptured in concert with Colorado River flooding of the Salton Trough.
The current dimensions of the Salton Sea located in California's Imperial Valley are but a fraction of the natural lake that preceded it. Through cycles of flooding and evaporation, the historical Lake Cahuilla was once one and a half times the size of Lake Tahoe at its maximum. What is left since the beginning of the 20th Century -- when local authorities redirected the Colorado River away from the lake -- is less than 1/25th that size.
When its natural dimensions were in place, Lake Cahuilla and its surrounding region experienced in a 1,000-year period five earthquakes on the Southern San Andreas that are believed to have been larger than magnitude 7. The temblors occurred about 180 years apart. It's been more than 300 years since the last one. Diversion of the Colorado River and the lack of flooding events in the local basin known as the Salton Trough may be one possible explanation.

The short version: the San Andreas may be overdue for the Big One because there is no water in the Salton Sea. The lack of water is due to human intervention that started in the late 19th century.

Additionally: "Large earthquakes on the southern San Andreas most likely will be accompanied by liquefaction in the Imperial Valley. In addition to ground shaking, the liquefaction will cause damage to water conveyance systems and existing infrastructure in the region and is likely to affect Salton Sea restoration efforts,"

Fun fact: the direction of fault rupture in big earthquakes determines where shaking occurs.
The idea that the San Andreas is triggered by stress loading in the Salton Sea supports the assumption by many scientists that a future quake sequence could propagate northward and potentially cause significant damage in the Los Angeles area.
So the Big One is not only overdue, but when it hits the shaking in LA will be greater because the same geology that has locked the fault will direct energy northwards.
If you live in Southern California have a nice day.
posted by Metacircular at 5:13 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Metacircular, that UCSD article is fascinating, with the stepover fault under there being trigged whenever a large lake forms, and that in turn triggering the San Andreas (so, explicitly causing a major quake, but maybe before enough energy builds to be catastrophic... unclear there).

But it also seems true that having a lake there is not the basins median state.. it's completely evaporated many times, and tends to stay dry for centuries. The current Salton Sea really only exists because of human intervention (and it was a real screw-up that almost re-routed the Colorado), so 'restoration' to the natural state is essentially whats already happening... The lake is going away again. (minus the new toxic materials 20th century industrial farming added to cultivate a desert sink).

Mostly, this seems like a good opportunity to talk about the negative impacts of unsustainable farming practices in the Imperial and southern San Joaquin valleys, and how much that part of California will be forced to change in the coming decades (and likely reduce both it's population and agricultural output).
posted by zeypher at 6:19 AM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

>What is left since the beginning of the 20th Century -- when local authorities redirected the Colorado River away from the lake -- is less than 1/25th that size.

>By what standard? My understanding was that it was ecologically stable before the rivers feeding it were diverted.

I'm confused by these statements because they both seem so factually wrong/misleading. The Wikipedia page is actually very detailed.

The Salton Sea was the Salton Sink a dry lakebed until 1900 when people building an aqueduct to the Imperial Valley messed up and mistakenly redirected the entire flow of the Colorado river into the Salton Sink for two years, forming the Salton Sea. So before the engineering disaster, yes the Salton Sea was ecologically stable as a dry lakebed.

After the two years of the entire flow of the Colorado filling the Salton Sink, the engineers got control of the river again and rediverted it back into the Gulf of California, though taking away a large amount in an aqueduct to irrigate the Imperial Valley. Due to lots of runoff from irrigating the Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea increased in size for about 30 years. Eventually farmers started being more precise in the amount of water used for irrigation, and runoff from the farms stopped being enough to overcome evaporation, and the sea is going away.

So there is no time in the last hundred and twenty years that the Salton Sea has been ecologically stable.

Yes, historically the Salton Sea/Sink was the site of temporary seas, and in fact at one point many many many years ago the Gulf of California extended all the way through the Salton Sea up to Mecca.

But blaming the drying of the Salton Sea on local authorities diverting the Colorado River? Only if you credit local authorities with creating the Salton Sea by diverting the Colorado River.
posted by GregorWill at 6:41 AM on June 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Can't help wondering if the most cost-effective and possibly kindest thing to do would be to just give loads of money to the people there to move and receive medical help.
posted by ephemerae at 3:25 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Or San Diego could just find its water somewhere else thats less planet-rapey?
They have a mothballed desalination plant and a healthy tax base.
posted by Fupped Duck at 3:52 PM on June 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Why are you blaming San Diego and not the owners of the water who are selling it to San Diego? Though currently they have been using the water to grow alfalfa hay and then shipping the hay to China and Saudi Arabia, in effect shipping Colorado river water across the ocean while we are in a drought, so I'm not sure that shipping it to San Diego is worse.

The air and health problems in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys predate the 2018 sale of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
posted by GregorWill at 5:07 AM on June 11, 2018

There was some discussion of the Salton Sea on Viceland's Abandoned. which was interesting because the host (who seems like a gentle reflective dude) interviewed some bored and concerned local youth.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:04 PM on June 11, 2018

Why not just recreate the incident that created the lake in the first place? Leak some water into it from the CO river and it should be good for at least a little while, right?
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:58 PM on June 11, 2018

It's still contaminated with farming runoff and it happens to be a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, and I imagine toxic water isn't so great for the birds.
posted by elsietheeel at 4:15 PM on June 11, 2018

You're vastly underestimating how much water is involved. Try leaking all the water from the Colorado into it for two years.
posted by Nelson at 6:27 PM on June 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

>Why not just recreate the incident that created the lake in the first place? Leak some water into it from the CO river and it should be good for at least a little while, right?

A number of reasons. As Nelson says, it sounds like you are vastly underestimating the amount of water needed. For one, no where near as much water flows through the Colorado river now as in 1906 because so much is diverted up stream for irrigation and residential use in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming, not to mention Arizona and California. Mexico also owns water rights and would be very mad if water didn't come through. The entire flow of the Colorado is currently owned by someone. "Whiskey's for drinkin, and water's for fightin over!"

Those seven states divided up the water rights in 1922. The divisions were based on data from the previous fifteen years. We now know that was an anomalous time with much heavier flow than normal. We have now returned to a more normal amount of flow based on historical tree ring data. However the water rights were divided up as an absolute amount instead of percentages. We have been taking more than the actual flow for the last number of years, so Lake Powell and many other reservoirs on the Colorado are currently at very low levels

Just looking at a map of the area, check how much irrigated land there is below Yuma. Everything in the Imperial Valley, below the Salton Sea, is irrigated with water taken out of the Colorado at approximately Yuma. Without the irrigation, none of that farmland would exist. It is basically a desert.

It is also interesting to think about the Gulf of California extending north. The land level was lower. The Colorado dumped out all of the sediment from the Grand Canyon into the Gulf of California, and it plugged it up and cut off the Salton Sea. If left to it's natural course, in a few hundred years the Colorado might plug up it's current course and redirect itself back into the Salton Sea again, until it sedimented that path over and switched back again.

That is actually what the Los Angeles River did as recently as 1825. Before 1825, the Los Angeles River didn't run to San Pedro/Long Beach, but turned west near downtown and headed out to the Santa Monica Bay pretty much along the current path of the Ballona Creek. But large storms in 1825 caused the LA river to switch to approximately its current path.
posted by GregorWill at 7:33 PM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

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