Changing Planet

New Hope for the Salton Sea

By Michael Cohen, Senior Associate, Pacific Institute

The Salton Sea, a vast saltwater lake in remote southeastern California providing crucial habitat for birds and wildlife, is quickly approaching a tipping point. Yet several recent actions give hope the lake could turn a corner in the near future.

Just yesterday, California announced the appointment of Bruce Wilcox, a very knowledgeable and action-oriented leader, to the newly-created position of assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. Last year, California voters approved a massive water bond with a sizeable chunk of money that could be directed toward Salton Sea activities. And, consensus is beginning to emerge over short- and medium-term projects at the declining Salton Sea.

Sitting some 234 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea formed in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded, tearing through an unprotected diversion canal and refilling a former lakebed in the desert. Today, irrigation water flows through the fields of the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali valleys and drains into the lake, sustaining it.

This water offsets evaporation losses; without it, the lake would steadily shrink and eventually disappear. This process concentrates the salts and other contaminants carried by the river and from the fields themselves.

Although the Salton Sea is 50 percent saltier than the ocean, it supports more than 420 different species of resident and migratory birds, ranging from white and brown pelicans to eared grebes, curlews, ibis, avocets and snowy plovers. It also supports millions of fish and a host of invertebrates, important food sources for the birds.

Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.
Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

The amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea will soon decrease dramatically, with rapid and catastrophic consequences. Fish will die out. Birds will lose their food source. The lake will shrink and the exposed lakebed will emit large amounts of disease-causing dust unless action is taken quickly.

The reason for these decreased inflows is that, after 2017, “mitigation” water will no longer be delivered to the Salton Sea by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID). Up until now, this arrangement has served to offset the loss of the water provided to San Diego County as part of the nation’s largest farm-to-urban water transfer. Moreover, the mitigation water deliveries will end even as the amount of water transferred to San Diego County increases.

This means that from 2017 to 2018, inflows to the lake could fall by almost 200,000 acre-feet – more than 18%, an enormous change. Within 10-12 years, the elevation of the lake could drop by as much as 20 feet, its salinity could triple, and its area could shrink by as much as 100 square miles.

The shrinking Salton Sea will expose tens of thousands of acres of lakebed. The dry lakebed could emit as much as a hundred of tons of dust each day, posing a severe threat to public health. It would also remove one of the last remaining havens for birds and wildlife along this Sonoran Desert stretch of the Pacific Flyway. Some 90 percent of the original wetlands of the Colorado River Delta and central California have dried up or been converted into farm fields, making the Salton Sea a critical link on the Pacific Flyway.

As documented in a 2006 Pacific Institute report, the loss of water will devastate the Salton Sea ecosystem and severely impact public health. In a region that already fails to meet state and federal air quality standards for dust, the exposure of additional dust-emitting lakebed will require very expensive air quality control measures. In Owens Lake, not far to the north, dust management costs could exceed $1.4 billion.

Fortunately, even allowing for the IID-San Diego County water transfer, a huge volume of water – more than 700,000 acre-feet per year – will continue to flow into the lake. Properly managed, this water could create and sustain tens of thousands of acres of productive habitat, minimize dust, and create recreational and economic opportunities.

Turning a Corner

Now, after more than 50 years of studies and meetings, the future of the Salton Sea may offer some glimmers of hope. National Geographic and The New Yorker have highlighted the Sea’s plight, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (the Board) and Little Hoover Commission have held workshops and hearings, the governor recently convened a new Salton Sea Task Force, and just yesterday he announced the appointment of the new assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy. These are all important and very welcome steps.

Brown pelican at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.
Brown pelican at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

The renewed interest began last November, when IID submitted a petition to the Board that, among other things, asks it to link the IID water transfer to California’s funding and implementation of a Salton Sea restoration project. If the state refuses to meet its end of the bargain by undertaking the restoration of the Salton Sea, the argument goes, why should IID risk massive liability arising from dust blowing off of lands exposed because of the water transfer?

IID’s petition arrived in the midst of California’s devastating drought, challenging California’s complacency about Colorado River reliability. IID’s transfer currently provides about 15% of San Diego County’s total water supply. The threat to water supply reliability for urban residents has focused attention on the Salton Sea and the need for state action.

This new focus comes just as construction of some 1200 acres of shallow wetland habitats is about to begin. Two new habitat projects – California’s Species Conservation Habitat project at the New River delta and the joint IID/US F&WS Red Hill Bay project at the Alamo River delta – should demonstrate the tremendous potential to use agricultural drainage to create high-quality habitat and protect public health.

View the SaltonSeaProjectsMap pdf for planned and proposed Salton Sea Projects, prepared by Bureau of Reclamation.

Complementing these shovel-ready projects, IID’s new Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative lays out a plan for moving forward. The Initiative calls for thousands of additional acres of habitat projects atop exposed Salton Sea lakebed, combined with dust management projects in more remote areas, as well as expanded access for geothermal projects. The Initiative is a critical step.

In addition, the local Salton Sea Authority is currently developing a new, long-term project that works with limited water, time, and incremental funding to create habitat and recreation and economic development opportunities.

These first habitat projects and (more broadly) a vision for a “smaller but sustainable Salton Sea” are falling into place. Stakeholders have reached consensus on the path forward.

Time to Act

California’s creation of the new assistant secretary position and the governor’s excellent choice of a proven leader to staff the position gives hope that the state is now committing to the Salton Sea. The new assistant secretary is fortunate to have momentum in his favor, along with a clear plan for moving forward and broad consensus. Money is also available, in the form of the recent water bond, and just needs to be appropriated to give the new assistant secretary and others the resources to act.

Governor Brown’s next budget should commit sufficient money to complete existing Salton Sea habitat projects and begin work on the next phase of projects.

The State Water Resources Control Board should schedule a hearing on revisions to its outdated water order on the transfer.

Southern California water agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District, should encourage legislators who represent their service areas to vote for significant Salton Sea funding. Failure to fund these efforts could jeopardize the IID-San Diego County water transfer and southern California’s supply of Colorado River water. The urban water agencies need to lend their considerable political clout to this agenda .

If these steps are taken, in 2017, state officials could host a dedication ceremony for the completion of more than a thousand acres of shallow wetland habitats at the Salton Sea and the initiation of additional air quality management and habitat projects. This event and progress would highlight California’s commitment to protection of public and environmental health, as well as ensuring long-term water reliability for urban Southern California.

There’s new hope for the Salton Sea. The next several months will determine whether we can convert this hope into reality.

Michael Cohen is a Senior Associate at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute. He is the author of several reports and articles about the Salton Sea, including Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea (2014).

  • John Mackey

    I’ve been in love with the Sea since I first came upon it in 1987. I follow the threads on this topic in earnest.
    The story says all “stakeholders have reached consensus on this plan”. Not True! Many of us think we should RESTORE the Sea, not simply mitigate. We think that the populous city on the Border, Mexicali, is a stakeholder, in so far as suffering endured after the Lake drys up. The only effective solution is to dip dual 30-inch PIPES into The Sea of Cortez, convey them to the Baja capital city, lie them in the BED of The New River for their 68-mile “right-of-way” to Geothermal fields near Niland, where distillation could take place & daily refresh the Lake.

  • George Courser

    Please inform us about the 700,000 acre feet of water – where exactly does it come from?
    “Fortunately, even allowing for the IID-San Diego County water transfer, a huge volume of water – more than 700,000 acre-feet per year – will continue to flow into the lake. Properly managed, this water could create and sustain tens of thousands of acres of productive habitat, minimize dust, and create recreational and economic opportunities”

  • Jef Bateman

    It is good that Jerry Brown is taking this seriously, although it seems that most of the proposals on the table are designed to mitigate damage from a dying Salton Sea rather than offer solutions to make the Salton Sea a flourishing stopover for migrating birds. The Salton Sea makes birds sick, and the animals that live in it are far from healthy.

  • Michael Cohen

    George – the 700,000 acre-feet of future inflows will come primarily from agricultural drainage from Imperial Valley. A decade ago, about 1,300,000 acre-feet flowed into the Sea, but that amount will decline due to the water transfer and various other factors.
    John – I think most of us would like to see the Sea restored, but that doesn’t seem feasible.
    Dual 30-inch pipes would only bring in a tiny fraction of the water needed to offset the impacts of the transfer, much less the other factors already causing the Sea to decline. And, you would need to bring in quite a bit more water, since desalinating ocean water means that more than 1/3 of the import water is rejected along with the salts. At that point, it would be much cheaper to just desalt the water directly in San Diego and stop the water transfer.

  • Jerry

    There is no money for any projects. It’s really that simple. The cronies that control the area are clueless. There is no real plan to restore or mitigate that is even in the least bit practical – or even proven technology. Who will spend billions on “hope”? The state has a colossal deficit to re-pay and routinely has giant deficits already. Recently passed bonds only BORROW more. The area is sparsely populated and those that live there have almost no political power. Get real, the SS was created by an accident, it is trying to go to where it came from – and that is “gone”. Agriculture and industry in the area polluted to lake for decades, now it will erupt in their faces. Nobody else in the state or elsewhere will pay for California’s fubar. This is ALREADY a done deal.

  • Theodore M Amenta

    Restoring the Salton Sea is physically, financial and market feasible. John Mackey is correct —- in principal physically. I and others have studied the delivery of water from the gulf estimating the cost as $500 million. The socio-economic impact has not been fully quantified. I estimate it to be in excess of $20 billion. A 1998 study showed $8 billion but was severely limited in scope. I have formulated a program of tourism-retail-construction- services based employment to support 45,000 new residence in three new towns. I can find no venue to publish these findings and land plans.

  • Chris Cockroft


    The idea of elevation control is important at the sea to protect public trust values–air quality, wildlife and aesthetics.

    Why not use the 765,000 acre feet of remaining tile water in geotubes at the perimeter to keep 40 ppt. and dig a one-way gravity canal/siphon from the Sea of Cortez to keep the lakebed covered and generate clean electricity?

    I know we all have our own opinions and sound like broken records, but some flexibility in your position would be welcome at this point.

  • Nicholas Byram

    What needs to be done, although it is costly, is a long dam, across the lake from just below Salton City to just below Bombay Beach, and another long berm-dam along the West side of the sea, diverting the New River, Alamo River, and all agricultural runoff into a man-made river channel flowing up towards Salton City and north of the dam. There would be an overflow spillway at Bombay Beach.

    North of the dam and spillway: A salt lake, getting fresher over time, restocked with fish, with a clockwise flushing action.

    South of the dam and spillway: A salt sump and salt ponds, and geothermal power development at any potential geothermal sites which would over time no longer be submerged. Ugly to be sure, but industrially useful.

    Half a lake and half a sump is better than a complete sump, which is where improved drip irrigation and geography are taking us now.

  • Steve Burton

    So, in 1905 a mistake was made that ‘filled’ the lake.
    Then ‘we’ allowed agricultural and industrial runoff to contaminate the lake sediments so that naturally occurring dust in the area poses a health risk. Another mistake.
    What would have happened if the lake had never filled (due to that error in judgement), and the runoff just dried up naturally at the bottom of the basin? Same dust, same issue.
    One solution is to employ the same situation that created this iteration of the lake, and all previous ancient versions of it.
    Allow the full unrestricted flow (opening all the upstream dams) of the Colorado River to flow into the basin, perhaps even until it overflows into the Sea of Cortes. Naturally, that would mean leaving most major cities in the southwest with severely reduced water supplies. Not a very likely scenario.
    The other possibility is the sea-level canal from the Sea of Cortes. Obviously that eliminates the ‘freshwater lake’ concept, but considering the current salinity of the Salton…

    My conclusion is that we really just don’t have the necessary freshwater resources to keep (or restore) the Salton as a ‘freshwater’ lake. Considering that it has filled and dried up many times over the millennia, we humans need to GET OVER our sentimental attachment to an ephemeral phenomenon, and learn to deal with the consequences of our mistakes.
    Again, if it is deemed necessary to keep the nasty sediments we have created from turning to blowing dust, then a seawater lagoon is the only reasonable answer.

  • Jeffrey S. Allison

    With the 2016/2017 winter rains have they impacted the water levels of the Salton Sea?

  • Roger Svensson
    This article recently was published in the National Geographic by Sandra Postel, a public.writer of the magazine. What came to my mind was why not pulse also the Salton Sea especially during these periods when we have El Nino(diverting as much as is going into the sea!!); maybe we can refill it back to its normal level wherever that might be certainly would be cheaper than digging a canal to the Sea of Cortez which is really the best long-term solution but very expensive in my mind Except perhaps the rising Seas eventually will take care of this problem with global warming….. so who knows how this will play out.

  • Steven

    This is terrible why can’t our Government due our country? This salt and sea smell and problem has Got too be cleaned .. and also alot of people that live in Indio should also state a complaint about the smell and filth in the terrible air quilty??

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media