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California Salton Sea spews toxic fumes, creating ghost towns

Frank Ruiz, director of the Audubon program in the Salton Sea, is looking for signs of bird activity on the northeast coast of the Salton Sea. The once thriving ecosystem of the lake is deteriorating as the coastline recedes and salinity increases.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

IMPERIAL GRAPH, CALIF. “The vision for Salton City was clear: a bustling resort town by the crystal blue waters of the Salton Sea. Residents could use their own boat docks and stroll along the palm-lined streets to the beach.

The reality of the city is darker. Instead of a resting place, it looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Most of the houses were demolished or not built. Palm trees are tree stumps. And the sea, though beautiful, is poisonous.

“People here used to fish, swim, bring their boats,” said Frank Ruiz, director of the Audubon program in the Salton Sea, as he stood at a crumbling dock on land that was once filled with water. “They went from living in paradise to living in hell.”

Here, in the southeastern corner of California, surrounded by sprawling mountains and desert, is the state’s largest and most problematic body of water, as well as some of the most abandoned settlements along its shores.

The decrease in water in the Salton Sea could be a preview of what will happen in other communities in the Western United States, as water supplies become less predictable due to climate change. Years of drought have severely depleted the reservoirs feeding the Colorado River, and the looming decline in water cut could affect millions of people.

Salton City, located on the coast of the Salton Sea, was once planned and developed as a resort village. The area has now become a ghost town with mostly empty lots and ruined houses.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

The landlocked lake was formed in 1905 when an accidental influx of water from the Colorado River filled a low-lying depression in the desert called the Salton Shell. The lake grew to 400 square miles in just a couple of years and remained full due to drainage water from farms, mainly in the Imperial Valley.

Tourism and wildlife flourished at sea in the mid-1900s. During the 20th century, California lost about 95% of its territory. wetlands and inland lakesmaking Salton a critical habitat for millions of migratory birds.

In the 1970s, the lake began to experience increased salinity and pollution from agricultural runoff. Now the ecosystem of the lake is collapsing, and scientists predict that the water can become so salty that only bacteria can survive. In 1999 the sea covered 375 square miles but has since shrunk by more than 45 square miles.

According to the National Audubon Society, many of the more than 400 sea-dependent bird species are becoming extinct, and all but one fish species have become extinct in the main body of the sea. The former lake bottom is being transformed into an open beach, which poses a health hazard to more than 650,000 people.

North Shore Beach and Yacht Club are located along the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea. It was closed in the 1980s after its dock was destroyed by fluctuations in the water level.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

The lakeside homes in Salton City, the inhabited tourist beach of Bombay and the yacht club that once hosted great personalities such as Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, are now mostly deserted and heavily polluted.

“Fifty years ago, there were restaurants, nightclubs and golf clubs here,” Ruiz said of an abandoned yacht club on the northeast coast. The club was closed in the 1980s after its dock was destroyed by water level fluctuations. Since then, it has been transformed into a museum of the history of the lake.

“Now look at what we have,” Ruiz continued. “The Worst Environmental, Medical and Economic Crisis in Modern History.”

Toxic fumes harm the poor

The Salton Sea has shrunk for decades, but the problem has escalated in the past few years.

The main reason for the loss of sea water stems from California’s attempts to use less water from the Colorado River, which supplies water and electricity to more than 40 million people in California, Arizona and several other states.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the main reservoirs on the river, are experiencing record declines in water levels, while demand from surrounding cities and suburbs remains high. Federal government to begin rationing water from Lake Mead for the first time next January.

To reduce its dependence on the river, California in 2003 struck a deal with the Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies Imperial Valley farmland with water from the Colorado River, to transfer up to 200,000 acres of water to coastal San Diego for up to 75 years.

Remains of a burned-out boat on the Bombay beach. Bombay was once a popular tourist destination, but the growing salinity, drying out and evaporation of the Salton Sea have made it a ghost town full of bohemian art.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

The deal called Quantitative settlement agreementwas the largest transport of water from agricultural areas to cities in US history. To mitigate the damage done to the Salton Sea, under the agreement, the Imperial Irrigation District sent additional water to Salton during 2017.

Imperial Valley farmers continued to successfully grow many of the country’s winter vegetables while consuming less water. Even after pumping water, the Imperial Valley uses more than half of California’s total water intake from the Colorado River, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

When the deal expired as planned, the decline in the quality and quantity of water flowing from the Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea accelerated, and the Imperial County Supervisory Board declared a local state of emergency about air pollution at sea.

Progress has been slow and inaction has been costly. The combination of degraded air quality, loss of ecological habitat, declining recreational income and property devaluation can cost up to $ 70 billion over three decades. according to the report published in 2014.

Imperial County, one of the poorest Hispanic counties in California, has been particularly affected by the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulfide leaking into oxygen-deprived water. It is also exposed to dust from the dried-up lake bed, which contains toxins such as arsenic and selenium.

A work of art on a Bombay beach. The mostly abandoned area hosts an annual arts festival called the Bombay Beach Biennale.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Imperial is now known for one of the poorest air quality in the country. It has the highest child emergency room admission rate for asthma in California – about double the state average. according to research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The sea highlights the state’s environmental justice crisis, as some experts point out that policy procrastination and inaction stems from the fact that the population closest to the sea is predominantly low-income communities of color.

“If the sea was near Los Angeles, it would have been repaired long ago,” Ruiz said. “But this is next to poor communities – and they have no political clout.”

“I think things will change when the sea starts to affect the wealthier communities in Palm Springs,” added Ruiz. “When protected settlements start to feel the effects of poor air quality, more action will be taken.”

Robert Schettler, spokesman for the Imperial Irrigation District, said the district is working on some offshore projects, such as smaller plans to reduce air quality and create vegetation, but said the decisions are the responsibility of the state.

“This is a huge problem that needs immediate attention,” Schettler said. “IID understands the interest in ensuring that the issues in the Salton Sea get the attention they deserve, and while action may be slow, we are pleased to see more happening.”

California is far from fix

County officials have been urging California for years to push forward plans to build wetlands along the lake’s open shoreline.

In 2018, California established the Salton Sea Governance Program to deal with the crisis. The state’s Natural Resources Agency has unveiled a 10-year plan to build 30,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects, and is evaluating water imports.

One possibility is to deliver water from the Sea of ​​Cortez, desalinate it and pump it into the lake, although it will be expensive. Another idea is to rent water from agricultural users in the Imperial Valley.

The Habitat Conservation Project, part of California’s 10-year plan to tackle the Salton Sea, covers about 3,770 acres of open lake bed. The area is home to wild animals such as herons and waders.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Geothermal mud boilers located off the coast of the Salton Sea. The mining of lithium, a component of batteries, is seen as an economic and environmental opportunity for society.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Michael Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the Pacific Institute, has studied the use of water in the Colorado River Basin and the management of the Salton Sea for over two decades. Cohen said that the state “absolutely does not” give due attention to the crisis and does not give it priority attention.

“The state is well behind the Salton Sea recovery schedule,” Cohen said. “There is a lot of money and a lot of water available. But they are not staffed quickly enough. And there is a lot of bureaucracy that takes a long time. “

“The Salton Sea’s problems are complex and urgent, and further sea degradation will exacerbate existing ones,” said Arturo Delgado, assistant secretary for policy at the Salton Sea at the Natural Resources Agency, in a statement.

“We recognize that progress has been slow in the past, but the government and its partners have shown a strong commitment to implementing projects on the ground,” Delgado said. “While there have been many delays in the past, in recent years we have gained strong momentum and added key staff to expand our capabilities.”

Salton Sea Beach is located on the western shore of the Salton Sea. The sea is unsafe for swimming, boating or fishing.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

One of the main economic prospects is lithium mining. As the sea coastline recedes, a beach is exposed that could provide access to lithium, a component of electric vehicles and energy storage.

The state energy commission has provided funding to energy companies to study lithium, with the understanding that geothermal energy development and lithium extraction can provide clean energy and spur local job growth.

The Salton Sea can never be restored to the state it once was, as California does not have enough water to refill it and climate change continues to worsen drought conditions.

But while progress in overcoming the crisis has stalled, experts insist that it is not too late for California to find and implement fixes.

“We have a moral obligation to care for the wildlife and communities affected by the Salton Sea,” Ruiz said. “I would like to see this lake full of water, but this is not possible. The solution is for communities, water areas and environmental groups to find common ground and protect it. ”


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