California’s largest lake is slipping away amid an epic drought

ALONG THE SALTON SEA, CALIF. —The bone-dry lake bed burned crystalline and white in the midday sun. Ecologist Bruce Wilcox hopped out of his truck and bent down to scoop up a handful of the gleaming, crusty soil.

Wilcox squeezed, then opened his fist. The desert wind scattered the lake bed like talcum powder.

“That’s disturbing,” Wilcox said, imagining what would happen if thousands of acres of this dust took flight. It’s the kind of thing that keeps him up at night.

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, 360 square miles of unlikely liquid pooled in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Now the sea is slipping away. The Salton Sea needs more water — but so does just about every other place in California. And what is happening here perfectly illustrates the fight over water in the West, where epic drought has revived decades-old battles and the simple solutions have all been tried.

Allowing the Salton Sea to shrink unabated would be catastrophic, experts say. Dried lake bed, called playa, is lighter and flies farther than ordinary soil. Choking clouds of particulate matter driven by powerful desert winds could seed health problems for 650,000 people as far away as Los Angeles. The effects would be even worse along the lake, where communities already fail federal air-quality standards and suffer the highest asthma rates in the state.

But the fate of the Salton Sea depends on a complicated series of deals that pit farms against cities, water rights against water needs, old ways of life against the new. The drought has forced a reconsideration of these agreements, with each side jealously guarding its claim to what little water is left.

Created by accident more than a century ago and fed largely by agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea is a difficult place to champion. Once a playground for Hollywood stars in the 1950s and ’60s, the lake today is stark, largely abandoned and at times plagued by fish kills and noxious bubbles of hydrogen sulfide gas.

Birds still love the lake. They flock here year round and especially during migratory flights. The Salton Sea provides habitat for more than 400 species — the second-greatest diversity of bird species in the United States. The National Audubon Society considers it a bird site of global significance.

Full article: California’s largest lake is slipping away amid an epic drought (The Washington Post)

Comments are closed.