The $383 Million Plan to Save California's Artificial Desert 'Sea'

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Picture a beach next to a blue lake under the bright California skies, its water twinkling as the sun catches gentle waves, and birds cruising on the thermals above. As you walk towards the lake, you see that the water levels are low, leaving behind cracked and dry brown mud below the white beach. When you reach what looks like sand from afar, your feet make a crunching sound. You realize it's thousands—no, millions—of bones snapping beneath your sneakers, from fish that were washed ashore, too many for even the birds or wild animals to consume. Wind blows toxic dust into the air from the shoreline, a sulphury smell rises up from the lake, and you realize why the shore is littered with rusted, broken, abandoned structures, and the only human here is you. But if you squint, you could see what it once was—and what it could be again.

This is the Salton Sea.

abandoned tire and recliner at salton sea shore
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In December, it will receive its final water transfer from the Colorado River, its only lifeline. After that, it will begin to dry up. Left to its own devices, it would disappear completely. But the state of California plans to help it survive: It's investing $383 million over the next decade to save the Salton Sea—in much reduced form.

This fake lake was created by accident, is heavily polluted, and can't survive on its own. Why bother to save this strange place?

Because not saving it would be even worse.

 
 

Located southeast of Los Angeles and directly south of Joshua Tree National Park, the sea is an artificial replacement of an ancient natural lake called Cahuilla. The lake appeared and disappeared over the millennia at intervals of 400 or 500 years depending on how much water it received from the Colorado River, writes George Kennan in his 1917 book The Salton Sea; an account of Harriman's fight with the Colorado River.

The native Cahuilla Indians told Kennan that the lake, located 232 feet below sea level, would periodically fill with water, turning the region into a useful wetland. At its fullest, it covered 2000 square miles and was 300 feet deep. But then it would slowly evaporate in the burning desert sun, its waning waters too salinated by naturally concentrated salts in the landscape to be of use to the Cahuilla. From at least 1540 to 1905, it was completely dry, as many weary '49ers, headed to California during the Gold Rush, could attest.

In 1900, the California Development Company, bankrolled by Harriman's railroad, brought irrigation to the desert. It diverted the Colorado River's water to the Imperial Valley, which sits directly south of the Salton Sea near the U.S.-Mexico border.

It was a bold, impetuous move—and one that paid off. Irrigation canals turned the desert fertile by providing water for farmers. "If anyone had then ventured to predict that this dried-up bed of the Gulf of California, this hot, sterile, and apparently irreclaimable desert would eventually become a beautiful, cultivated valley, producing cotton, barley, alfalfa, dates, melons, and fruit, to the value of 10 or 15 million dollars a year, he would have been regarded as a visionary enthusiast, if not a desert-crazed monomaniac," Kennan writes.

Everything changed in 1905. An extra-snowy winter caused massive snow melt in the spring, and the Colorado River swelled, overwhelming the irrigation channels. Engineers spent months attempting—and failing—to hold the river back by building dikes and bringing in truckloads of earth to dam it. By the time they quelled the flood, a huge amount of water had already flowed into the basin of Lake Cahuilla. This was the birth of the Salton Sea.

In ensuing decades, the sea only grew larger thanks to agricultural runoff, which also deposited salts, minerals, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in the seabed. Some saw tourism potential in the rising waters, stocking the sea with tilapia and building resorts, restaurants, and homes along the coastline. Just a few hours' drive from Hollywood, the sea was advertised as a "paradise in the desert" or a working-man's Palm Springs. Small towns popped up on its shores: Bombay Beach. Salton Sea Beach. Desert Shores.

In the 1950s, it became a playground for the growing California middle class. Stars like the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono especially loved it; the latter became its champion. After Bono's death in 1998, his widow, Mary, told CNN that he had "wanted his legacy to be saving the Salton Sea." A national wildlife refuge in the area is now named after him.

But the heyday of the Salton Sea didn't last long. As the populations of western states grew, they needed water—not just for crops but for homes, lawns, golf courses, hospitals, and industries. And for that water, they turned to the 1450-mile-long Colorado River, which passes through seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. Forty million people depend on the Colorado. Over the decades, so much water has been siphoned from the river that in most years, it no longer flows to the Gulf of California, as it did for millions of years (with a brief pause, geologically speaking, to create Lake Cahuilla).

dead fish on salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

Considering these pressures, the Salton Sea is a low priority. Its receding shores have left behind ghost towns, dead trees, toxic dust, and rotting fish.

 
 

The decision to cut off the Salton Sea from the Colorado River comes out of a 2003 deal between southern California water authorities and various parties, following an earlier lawsuit; for years, states have been grappling over water allotments from the Colorado River, and California has long been accused by other states of taking more than its fair share. That deal allowed for water for the Salton through 2017. When the last water transfer of 38 billion gallons goes through in December, the Salton will dry up faster than ever.

There are three reasons why this is a problem. First, as the lake bed becomes exposed, the fine particulates in the mud there will be blown into the already dusty skies of Imperial County. Since so much of the water that made up the lake came from agricultural runoff, that dust likely contains accumulated pesticides, DDT, and heavy metals. (The extent of the contamination is still not known, and researchers are just beginning to look at what's in the dust.)

"Those [exposed areas] are creating far more dust than the regular residential desert," Salton City resident Kerry Morrison tells Mental Floss. Morrison is the executive director of EcoMedia Compass, a nonprofit environmental organization, and president of the West Shores Chamber of Commerce, which represents several Salton Sea communities. "During dust storms, I've been down there [by the shore]. It's major," he says.

The dust is wrecking people's lungs. Residents of Imperial County have an asthma rate three times higher than the state average, and the county now has California's highest rate of asthma-associated ER visits.

"It is a crisis. It's an emergency. It needs to be dealt with," Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Comité Cívico Del Valle, an outreach and educational organization in the Imperial Valley, told The Desert Sun.

playa and lone tree at salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

That crisis, like many of those exacerbated by climate change, is borne by those with the fewest resources. "This is an economic justice issue. The people affected are poor disadvantaged Hispanic communities," Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the water-focused environmental nonprofit Pacific Institute, tells Mental Floss. In a recent study, Pacific Institute estimates that the exposed lake bed could put an additional 100 tons of dust into the air per day through 2045, leading to an estimated cost of almost $40 billion in healthcare due to asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease, which are worsened by air pollution.

Economically, the communities along the Sea are also in decline. The area used to compete with Yosemite for visitors, often besting the National Park for tourists. "We've lost half of our businesses in 10 years," Morrison says. "That's not a future to believe in." But locals think it could still be an economic driver again, albeit a more modest one, if the Sea were returned to even a version of its former glory.

Birds also love the "stinky sea": In the 112 years it has been with us, the Salton has become a major stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway, which runs from Alaska to Patagonia. But the water becomes more saline as levels drop, and fish die. And without fish, the birds who have come to depend on the area die too.

pelican flies above salton sea
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In the past, they would have had plenty of other options when Lake Cahuilla dried up, but California, like many states, has bulldozed, filled in, or developed most of its natural wetland areas—about 95 percent of them. There aren't other nearby waters for tired birds as they fly thousands of miles along their migration routes. The Salton Sea might be a smelly, salty lake to us, but to the more than 420 species of birds observed there, it's an oasis, as Audubon California notes.

 
 

But not all hope is lost for the Salton Sea. There is a 10-year plan from the state of California that is gearing up as the imminent cutoff of the lake from the Colorado River looms. The plan allocates $383 million over a decade (with an initial $80 million in funding already available) to deal with all three issues: dust, birds, and the local economy.

Under this plan, a little more than half of the Salton Sea will remain, surrounded by interconnected ponds, some as large as 500 acres. Each pond will be engineered, with berms to keep water inside and culverts connecting them. They'll be deep enough for fish to reproduce within.

According to Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the state agency California Natural Resources, "The new plan builds habitat in an incremental manner as the sea recedes. It provides a less saline habitat—that helps with the fisheries habitat and the fish-eating birds. It also covers up the exposed playa—that helps with the dust issue." Over the 10-year period, about 40,000 acres of playa—flat, dried-out desert basin that water easily evaporates from—will be covered by water. That's about two-thirds of the area that's projected to become exposed as the Salton Sea dries up.

A healthier and more pleasant sea will be better for the locals and might encourage visitors, Wilcox tells Mental Floss: "It'll look different to people, but I don't think the birds will care."

This fall, California State Resources began digging out the playa to create the first ponds. Whatever the agency learns can be used to make the future ponds as effective as possible.

Morrison calls the 10-year-plan "a good start" that provides an "ark for the animals and gives them a chance." But he says it's not enough, especially because it's not going to improve air quality to the level it needs. He points out that there's no real plan for dust mitigation where people live.

He'd like to see some of the almost $400 million spent on bringing water into the Salton Sea—actual salt water from the Gulf of California. Since the 1970s, some locals have advocated for constructing a 115-mile, border-crossing channel called the Coyote Canal. Part of the canal, covering about one-third of the distance, already exists, serving ranches and farms in Mexico. Under this plan, the canal would be extended from the gulf to a small semi-dry lake called Laguna Salada, and then continue another 40 miles north to the Salton Sea. Because the sea is so far below sea level, the canal would have a downhill run. The plan's advocates see it as an opportunity to restore the Salton Sea to its former glory.

Construction cost estimates vary, but Morrison argues they are similar to what is already being spent. Continuing the canal would involve the Mexican government, ranchers, and farmers whose land would be crossed, but Morrison says both the government and the ranchitos are enthusiastic. Having a water source—even a salty one—would be a boon for the region, including for the native Cocopah people whose culture was focused around the lower Colorado, on both sides of the Mexican border, for 4000 years. Currently, Americans use all the water before it reaches the Mexican border and the Cocopah's land. You can see how its proponents envision it working in the video below.

Morrison also points out that existing geothermal plants on the shores of the Salton Sea could use excess energy to desalinate the seawater, making a true oasis in the desert—complete with fresh water. There's already an experimental program, run by Sephton Geothermal, that does just that, and there are proposals for adding another geothermal plant to those that already exist there.

Both the canal construction and the desalination program were once included in a more ambitious—and more expensive—restoration plan for the Salton Sea area, but neither made it into the current plan.

But geoengineering is harder than nature makes it look. One cautionary tale is the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, it's now a ghost of its former self. For decades during the Soviet era, the rivers that fed it were diverted and dammed for agriculture. It's now "a memory of those who knew it and loved it and saw it slip away," Michael Edelstein writes in his book Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability.

Owens Lake is another, more local example. The 200-square-mile lake, which had existed for 800,000 years at the foot of the Sierras, was sucked dry by thirsty Los Angelenos in a little more than a decade. By 1926, it was mostly gone. Dust became a problem there, too. A billion dollars later, most of the carcinogenic dust has been mitigated with engineering projects similar to those planned for the Salton Sea. But Owens Lake, once called the American Switzerland, is gone forever.

Will the Salton Sea go the way of the Aral Sea or Owens Lake? Or will the 10-year rescue plan lead to a success story?

As construction begins on the ponds, one thing is for sure: The Salton Sea as we have known it will be gone. "We are looking at a smaller, but more sustainable Salton Sea," Wilcox says. "It will have a smaller footprint, but it's something we can sustain over time."

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

A LEGO Brick Could Survive In the Ocean for Up to 1300 Years

If LEGO bricks can survive children, they can survive anything.
If LEGO bricks can survive children, they can survive anything.
Punkbarby/iStock via Getty Images

As any parent who has ever walked through their house in bare feet knows, LEGO bricks are among the most resilient objects on the planet. Able to withstand years of manipulation and abuse, the sets remain intact even when doll heads, action figure limbs, and electronic games fall by the wayside.

If you needed further confirmation on their durability, science is here to help. New research from the University of Plymouth in the UK published in the journal Environmental Pollution demonstrates that the bricks could survive in some form for as long as 1300 years in the ocean. Not even constant exposure to saltwater can stop them.

This projection was determined by researchers collecting LEGO bricks that had washed ashore in Southwest England. They compared the mass of these found bricks to similar LEGOs taken from storage. The 50 pieces, which are made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic, were retrieved from outdoor saltwater exposure to be washed, weighed, and measured. Their approximate age was estimated by using an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to see which chemical elements were missing. A rate of deterioration was made based on their condition relative to the stored bricks.

The result? LEGO bricks could hold on to some semblance of shape for anywhere between 100 to 1300 years. While not necessarily usable—some of the pieces decayed into blobs of plastic—researchers were able to demonstrate that microplastics can endure in the environment for indefinite periods.

“The pieces we tested had smoothed and discolored, with some of the structures having fractured and fragmented, suggested that as well as pieces remaining intact they might also break down into microplastics,” Andrew Turner, the lead author and associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Plymouth, said in a statement. “It once again emphasizes the importance of people disposing of used items properly to ensure they do not pose potential problems for the environment.”

[h/t Geek.com]

15 Easy Ways You Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

iStock/Zinkevych
iStock/Zinkevych

Imagine a landmass the size of the entire continent of Africa burning as a massive forest fire for an entire year. Such an enormous fire would release nearly 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—the same amount that human activity produces every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2015 numbers. The scale at which we're pumping out CO2 is alarming, and it is all serving to trap heat on the planet and fuel climate change. Fortunately, there are small, easy steps everyone can take to reduce their personal carbon footprint (which you can calculate here).

1. Skip the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich …

A picture of a breakfast sandwich.
zkruger/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Your breakfast sandwich, while delicious, isn't eco-friendly. Livestock consume a lot of resources and release the greenhouse gas methane into the environment every time they burp and fart—which means animal products come at a high environmental cost. Add the toll that transporting and packaging the ingredients takes on the environment, and the average bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich comes out to about 1441 grams CO2 equivalent (a unit that measures global warming potential). For comparison, driving a car four miles produces about 1650 grams CO2 equivalent. Maybe grab some locally grown fruit the next time you're looking for a portable morning bite.

2. … and the grass-fed beef.

A cow grazing on grass.
Albina Kosenko/iStock via Getty Images

Grass-fed beef has been embraced by the organic food movement, leading some people to believe it's the better choice for the environment. But a 2017 report released by Oxford's Food Climate Research Network shows this isn't the case: Grass-fed cattle only accounts for 1 gram of protein, per person, per day, compared to 13 grams from all ruminants, which includes cows, sheep, and goats. Despite this, grass-fed cattle still contribute one-third of all the greenhouse gases produced by ruminants—and the carbon-absorbing pastures they graze in don't do much to offset that. But grain-fed, factory-farmed meat isn't much better for the environment, and it comes with a whole different set of concerns, so a better option is to cut meat from your diet where you can.

3. when you Fly, book coach seats.

Airplane seats.
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Traveling somewhere by plane is the quickest way to expand your carbon footprint. Just one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles produces about a fifth of the emissions your car creates in a year. The best option for the environment is to fly less or not at all, but this is unrealistic for some people. An alternative is to book your seats in coach. Because they're allotted less space, and therefore require less fuel, passengers flying economy are linked to three times fewer emissions than those flying in business class. Look at first class and the difference is even more dramatic: Those flyers account for nine times the carbon emissions of passengers in coach.

4. Shop for clothes at second-hand stores.

Shopping at a thrift store.
Lolostock/ iStock via Getty Images

Next time you have a moment alone, check the tags of the clothes you have on. Unless you're a mindful shopper, your wardrobe likely crossed thousands of miles before ending up in your possession. The resources that go into making a single garment also add up: According to a report from Dame Ellen MacArthur's foundation, the fashion industry produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Fortunately, there's an alternative to buying clothes from major chains that doesn't involve joining a nudist colony. Next time you need to replenish your closet, head to a second-hand store. Buying gently used clothing is better for the environment, and many thrift stores donate part of the proceeds to charitable causes.

5. Ride a Bike.

Man riding his bike.
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It's easy to see how biking can reduce your carbon footprint. While the typical passenger car releases about 404 grams of CO2 per mile, a bicycle emits zero. If you live in a bikeable city or in an area with mild weather year-round, a bike is a worthwhile investment. Even if a bike can't replace your car completely, for shorter trips it's a great way to be gentle on the environment while saving gas money and getting a cardio workout at the same time.

6. Turn down your thermostat.

A smart thermostat.
Silas Bubolu/ iStock via Getty Images Plus

Heating your home in the winter is expensive, and it can also be a major contributor to your carbon footprint. Do the planet and your wallet a favor and turn down the thermostat by a degree or two when you're in the house. At night you should turn the heat down even lower, and when you're away you should turn it off altogether. Investing in a smart thermostat that senses when you're in the house and adjusts itself is another way to reduce your carbon emissions.

7. Hang your clothes to dry instead of using a dryer.

Clothesline.
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If you have the yard space for a clothesline, take advantage of it. According to The Guardian, a household that uses a dryer 200 times a year could shrink its carbon footprint by roughly half a ton of CO2 by air-drying laundry instead. Even if you don't have the option to use a clothesline year-round, avoiding the dryer for just half your loads would make a difference.

8. Unplug the appliances when you're not using them.

Unplugging a slow cooker.
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Just because an appliance is turned off doesn't mean it isn't consuming energy. According to How Stuff Works, the "phantom energy" zapped up by electronics that stay plugged into an outlet around the clock can account for 10 percent of your electric bill (which, if you factor it out, would be more than a free month's worth of electricity each year). If you can't stand plugging and unplugging every gadget around your home all day, try leaving appliances you don't use on a daily basis, like toasters, desk lamps, etc., unplugged and only power them up when you need them.

9. Reuse items whenever you can.

Reusable shopping bags.
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Every piece of waste you toss in the garbage adds to your carbon footprint. You may not be able to bring your trash production down to nothing, but you can reduce it by investing in non-disposable goods that can withstand a bit of wear and tear. Reuseable shopping bags, food storage containers, coffee cups, and straws can replace many of the items that are often thrown away every day.

10. Switch out your old light bulbs for energy-saving ones.

Energy-efficient lightbulbs.
Pornpak Khunatorn/ iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you still use incandescent bulbs to light your home, it's time to make a change. Incandescents use electricity inefficiently, adding money to your electricity bill and your home cooling expenses, thanks to the excess heat they generate. Energy Star-qualified light bulbs like CFLs (compact fluorescents) and LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are more energy-efficient than the average light bulb and last six times as long. If every household in America swapped just one regular light bulb for one of these options, we could reduce CO2 emissions by 9 billion pounds.

11. Carpool with your work buds.

People carpooling.
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For trips where biking isn't an option, see if you can find a friend. Car travel isn't great for the environment, but hitching a ride with someone going the same direction as you makes a much smaller impact than driving alone. Next time you're at work, look around the office for potential carpool buddies. And before your next night out with friends, suggest a system that doesn't involve everyone coming in a separate car.

12. Wash your clothes in cold water.

Washing machine.
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One way to make your electric laundry machine a little gentler on the environment is to switch on the cold water setting. That simple change can reduce your washer's carbon emissions by 75 percent and save you $60 for every 300 loads of laundry you clean. And for lightly soiled clothing, cold water sanitizes just as well as a warm wash.

13. Use curtains for temperature control.

Curtains aren't just there for privacy—throughout the year, they can help lower your energy consumption. When the sun is hitting the house, keep your windows clear in the winter to take advantage of that free heat source, and close them during peak daylight hours during the summer (especially when you aren't at home). On winter nights, conserve energy by drawing your curtains closed and blocking the heat inside from leaking out, and either open your windows at night for a fresh breeze or close your curtains to keep the air conditioning in during the warmer months. Keep up these habits year-round and you'll see the difference in your heating and cooling bills.

14. Take shorter showers.

A shower head running water.
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You don't need to deprive yourself of the pleasure of a hot shower to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle. According to Mother Jones, we would save 20.9 billion pounds of CO2 a year if we all shaved one minute off our shower sessions. If that change sounds easy for you, try taking the five-minute shower challenge for a week or two.

15. Plant a tree.

People planting a tree.
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One of the easiest ways to take care of the planet is also the most fun. Set aside an afternoon to plant a tree in your backyard and the benefits will last its whole life. A young tree absorbs roughly 13 pounds of CO2 per year and a mature tree can absorb 48 pounds. After 40 years, a tree will have sequestered 1 ton of carbon that would have otherwise contributed to global warming.

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