The Shrinking Salton Sea Endangers Region's Health
West Shores High School principal Richard Pimentel slips on a cowboy hat before stepping outside. It is a nod to fashion as a response to the region’s harsh desert sun.
The school sits about halfway up the western side of California’s Salton Sea. Modern buildings, concrete patios and walkways and an artificial turf sports field stand in stark contrast to the desert community that surrounds the campus.
Tumbleweed and sand are common fixtures of the town’s yards.
“We are about 30 miles from anywhere,” Pimentel said.
Pimentel’s manner is relaxed and comfortable as he walks among his students during lunchtime.
A smile, a question or a joke come easily.
“They’re my kids," Pimentel said. "You have to take responsibility and ownership of that. These folks have entrusted me with the welfare of their kids. It’s a big deal.”
Dust swirls in windy desert valley
Pimentel can guide and encourage, but he cannot shield his students from the dust that swirls in this windy desert valley.
“Any time there’s any kind of a wind, you see the dust clouds,” Pimentel said.
The dust in those clouds contribute to the Imperial Valley’s highest in the state asthma rates, and most people who live here expect things to get worse. That is because the Salton Sea is shrinking, exposing thousands of acres of possibly toxic lakebed to the hot sun and the region’s powerful winds.
Inside the nurse’s office at West Shores High, Pimentel unlocks a metal cabinet. It contains plastic bags from more than 40 of his students who need to bring prescription medicine to school so they can cope with their asthma.
He holds one up and looks through the translucent material.
Bringing inhalers to school
“Inhalers with their schedule of when they’re supposed to be using them and things like that. So yeah these are all the inhalers that are registered here,” Pimentel said.
There are also a number of children that bring inhalers to school and do not bother to register them. They do it so they can breathe well.
"It sadly becomes part of our daily lives, the management of inhalers, the phone calls to the parent. 'Hey, your kid is having a hard time breathing,'” Pimentel said.
The school principal finds it difficult to teach students if they are constantly grappling to cope with the symptoms linked to asthma.
He understands the frustration and anger of young people and parents and he worries the situation is getting worse.
Struggling with poor air quality
The desert valley already struggles with poor air quality.
State health officials say 23,000 children and adults have asthma in Imperial County.
The number of asthma-related emergency visits for every 10,000 residents is close to twice as high as the statewide average.
That has long held the attention of community advocates concerned about people living in the Imperial Valley.
“Just in our air basin in the Salton Sea there’s upward of 1.6 million people that live and share this air,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle.
The basin includes desert communities like Indio and Palm Springs to the north and Mexicali across the border to the south.
Risk isn’t always visible
The environmental justice group has put a spotlight on air quality, by installing more than 40 air quality monitors around the valley. One monitor sits on the roof of the group’s Brawley headquarters.
The information is curated with the help of University of Washington researchers and made available on a website that any computer can access. Olmedo wants people to know the risks, even though that risk is not always visible.
“It’s not the dust that we see. It’s all those other particles that we don’t see within that dust,” Olmedo said.
Collected air monitoring data is shared with state officials, but Olmedo is doing more.
The community advocate helped bring Sacramento lawmakers to Imperial County so legislators can see the situation on the ground. Olmedo hopes that seeing the lake and the people living around it will spur them to fight for the money needed to avoid a public health disaster.
“I think without any intervention it is exactly that,” said Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary for California’s Natural Resources Agency in charge of Salton Sea policy.
Wilcox is working with local officials on the state’s recently approved restoration blueprint for the shallow lake.
Water levels in the Salton Sea dropped about nine inches last year, a rate that is widely expected to double in 2018.
Imperial County water managers are no longer adding water to the lake as part of a deal to sell Colorado River water to San Diego.
“You look over my shoulder and you can see a lot of exposed playa that probably we should’ve been working on this since 2004 or 2005 and we haven’t been,” Wilcox said.
Landmark water management deal
California agreed to take on Salton Sea restoration in 2003 as a way to encourage the Imperial Irrigation District to join a landmark water management deal.
The agreement set the rules for managing Colorado River Water and cleared the way for rural to urban water transfers. It also laid the groundwork that could cut into the amount of water then flows into the lake.
But the state put off developing a restoration plan until late last year.
Gov. Jerry Brown directed California to invest $80 million right away and he committed the state to spend another $300 million in the first decade of the plan. The project calls for the creation of shallow ponds that create habitat and trap dust.
The state plan is already lumbering forward, but there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to securing the money to pay for the project. Wilcox said the total cost will likely end up well north of a billion dollars.
“We need a long-term long-range funding source for this project. It isn’t going to be something that’s $5 million here and $5 million there,” Wilcox said.
There is already work underway.
Rehabilitating Red Hill Bay
One test project that was approved several years ago is near the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, located on the southeast corner of the lake.
The idea to rehabilitate Red Hill Bay is simple, create a shallow saltwater pond that traps the dust and provides habitat for wildlife. It is similar to the Duck ponds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built and manages nearby.
“Yeah, this is about a five-acre pond, lined with cattails on the side. That gives you a good indication it’s a freshwater pond,” said Chris Schoneman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project manager.
The planned 500-acre saltwater pond is nearby. The area used to be a vibrant refuge for birds and fish, but the shallow bay has completely dried out over the past decade.
Federal officials are working on a berm that would hold in agricultural runoff and Salton Sea water. They envision a pump on a barge in the middle of the lake.
“I have estimated that we’ll have to keep pumping 24/7,” Schoneman said.
Lakebed is too soft for heavy equipment
However, getting that model up and running turned out to be tougher than expected and the project is more than a year behind schedule.
The lakebed is too soft for heavy equipment to easily build the earthen berm that will hold the water in and the pump getting water from the Salton Sea will have to be on a barge. That pump will have to haul water from a lake that is actually moving away from the restoration area.
It is also an expensive solution. It costs about $10,000 an acre to keep the dusty playa flooded.
With tens of thousands of acres expected to be exposed in the next two decades, the cost will add up quickly.
But, that has not dampened Schoneman’s optimism, because he said the region is too important ecologically.
“The Salton Sea for much of its past and for the past 100 years on a daily basis has provided food for over 200,000 birds every day. That’s huge. That’s on the scale of San Francisco Bay or the Great Salt Lake in Utah,” Schoneman said.
Imperial Irrigation District officials which control the region’s power and water, consider the Red Hill Bay project worthwhile, but water managers say it is expensive and not the only option.
“We’ve built about a thousand acres of dust control projects on a pilot scale trying to determine what grading techniques work best and what angles should you plow that soil at. We’re looking at things that you can do on a large scale for a relatively low cost. We’re not into building Cadillacs at the Salton Sea. We want to see what we can do on a low-cost basis,” said Tina Shields, IID water manager.
The southern end of the sea, near the valley’s farms, is shallow. As the water level falls this year, the shoreline will retreat quickly and the threat to people is not lost on Shields.
“As this vast basin that has been historically covered with water recedes, we have massive amounts of playa exposed with the potential to be emissive. And we have pretty significant wind events,” said Tina Shields, IID water manager.
Once a destination for boating and fishing
Shields concedes that the lake will likely never return to its historical heyday in the 1950s when the Hollywood crowd made the area a destination for boating and fishing.
But developers pushing those recreational visions lured people to the desert sea.
West Shore residents recently gathered along their stretch of Salton Sea coast, to hear about the state plans for the sea and what they might be able to do to protect their interests.
Deborah Bird was one of them. She came to the sea in search of the good life and ended up buying a home and a boat.
“We’d pull out right here. And we’d go out to the sea. Then we’d go visit people that had docks. You know, this was 2004, 2005, 2006. We’d stop and have a drink or have lunch with them and then get back in our boat,” Bird said.
But the water is no longer deep enough to allow a boat to dock at her backyard forcing her to sell the craft for about half of what it was worth. Bird worries about a friend with two young children. She said the kids suffer because of poor air quality around the lake.
“It makes me sick. They’re like our grandchildren. We have to see them get sick out here,” Bird said.
Bird, herself, carried a plastic bag that held something she said is as common here as a large screen TV.
“It’s a breathing machine,” she said as she rummaged through the bag. “And you have to put little bottles of albuterol in here.”
West Shores Mayor Kerry Morrison tries to remain optimistic about the Salton Sea’s future, but that is easier to say than do.
Restoration efforts ramp up
At that recent neighborhood meeting, residents heard from the state’s point man on the Salton Sea, Bruce Wilcox who urged them to be patient as restoration efforts ramp up.
Morrison said everyone understands that change is coming.
“We are set to see the water level go down much more rapidly than it has and there are quite a few problems as far as the spiking of salinity, localized dust storms and losing likely millions of animals,” said Morrison.
Working to keep the dialogue positive as the state moves ahead with restoration plans, Morrison is hopeful that the future includes considerations for people who live around California’s largest lake.
“We need to have our west shores get some sort of funding, some sort of promise from the state that they’re going to help us. Because if they don’t we’re going to end up in the dust,” Morrison said.
'A simple, simple fix'
And while dust control is a major focus for the state, others wonder about different solutions. Bird sees a simple solution, one that restores her vision of the lake before she moved here from Los Angeles.
“Put water in the sea. Freshwater, saltwater, we don’t care. Flood the sea with water. It’s a simple, simple fix,” Bird said.
But water is in short supply in the southwest. The Colorado River could be entering a long period of drought which makes water for farms and cities even more valuable than it currently is.
That leaves the future of the Salton Sea in an uncertain place, much like the yet to be secured funding to restore it.