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The Salton Sea: Natural or Not?

Aug 27 2015

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Panoramic view of the Salton Sea shore. (image: Akos Kokai via Flickr)
 

Daniel Polk

Daniel Polk is an anthropologist and postdoctoral scholar at the Center. His research looks at the politics of water in the borderlands of California. Here, he describes his research on the Salton Sea, the California's largest lake by area and a vast but rapidly changing body of water in the southern desert.

In the arid lowlands of the Imperial Valley lies the Salton Sea, California’s largest and perhaps most uncanny body of water. An inland sump, it is an enclosed drainage endpoint, a vast sheet of water surrounded by the heat and brittle aridness of the desert basin. With no outlet to the ocean, the lake’s concentration of salts and sediments only increases, mixed with fertilizers and pesticides from nearby agricultural runoff.

Image: Patty Mullins via Flickr

The lake is a habitat for hundreds of species of migrating birds, a vital stopover on the hemispheric migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway. Yet it remains a perilously balanced ecosystem. The lake teeters between fish population booms and massive fish die-offs, its shore carpeted with dried barnacles and fish bones. The Salton Sea also stands out for its recent history, arising only a century ago from the inundation of canals and levees along the Colorado River. In the press and most other accounts, the lake is nothing if not unnatural—a product of hastily-cut engineering, an out-of-place ecology. An examination of the Salton Sea however shows how this place resists ready categorization of “natural” or not.

Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood.

The lake is a relatively young body of water. Its recent history attests to claims of its unusual nature. The Salton Sea began to rise when the Colorado River flooded through a shoddy irrigation canal in 1905. The full force of the river flowed into the Imperial Valley, led by gravity into the below sea-level basin until engineers dammed the flood in 1906. The river then broke through a levee, filling the basin until it was finally stopped in 1907. Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood. The Colorado River has frequently flooded the valley; geologists estimate that an ancient lake twice the size of today’s Salton Sea has periodically filled the basin for millennia. One wonders, if the levees had not been constructed in the first place then the river would have flooded into the basin on its own. If anything, the damming of the 1907 flood (and the continued irrigation water feeding the lake presently) have created a small-sized sea whereas in its place “Mother Nature” would have perhaps allowed the river to fill the basin to the brim.

Image: Travis S. via Flickr

Another aspect of the lake reflecting it unique attributes is perpetual environmental constraints. The Salton Sea is home to millions of salinity-resistant fish, which in turn support migrating birds. Yet the high “nutrient load” of the waters lead to occasional algae blooms, which starve fish of oxygen and lead to thousands of dead fish washing onto the shore. During such events, the lake produces hydrogen sulfide gas, an odor as unpleasant as rotten eggs. Even these challenges may not strictly merit the label of “unnatural.” Such processes of high salinity, nutrient load, algae blooms, fish die-offs, etc. are common to other lakes—what scientists call “eutrophication.” The lake’s most unusual, unsettling sight—dead fish covering the shore—is itself the product of a process documented in many other “natural” bodies of water. It is rather the scale and rate of these processes that is special to the Salton Sea, accelerated by unintended human impacts—what scientists call “cultural eutrophication.”

The lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs.

Instead of seeking a conclusion on whether the lake is “natural” or not, it is more useful to ask what purpose does the Salton Sea serve, what relations and circumstances does it make possible? For the lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs. This water transfer is slowly draining the Salton Sea, and it is to go into full effect after 2017, marking the time after which the Salton Sea could shrink to half its size. As a result, dried-up lakebed would be exposed to harsh desert winds, kicking up fine sediments mixed with decades of accumulated pesticides into the polluted air. These dust storms could hinder the industry, agriculture and tourism of nearby Mexicali, Imperial Valley and Palm Springs, threatening the public health of over one million people in the United States and Mexico. The lake’s environmental restoration is not for the goal of simply restoring a “natural” habitat but of caring for a place which so many are connected to. The Salton Sea is part of an ecosystem which countless people and institutions now depend on.

Image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

The lake demonstrates that the “natural” is a fluid and not fixed term. Proponents of the Salton Sea often emphasize the natural qualities of the lake. If the lake is unnatural, then its decline can be more readily accepted by the public, yet if it is a natural place, then its restoration becomes a more urgent imperative, less easy to ignore for those in power. As a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center, I will be continuing my research on the politics of the Salton Sea, placing a focus on the ways that its impacts cross political boundaries. This requires investigations into not only how people make sense of and negotiate water management, but also how people make sense of their world and define nature itself. To do so requires historicizing the present predicaments of the Salton Sea and highlighting the political nature of its ecological crisis.