Switching to Clean Energy Could Save Coachella Valley's Largest Lake

As the Salton Sea begins receding, significant consequences will quickly become apparent.

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Jun 27 2017, 6:15pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an opinion piece by Sarah Friedman, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club.

The Coachella Valley in southern California is now widely recognized as home to the music festival that draws nearly 200,000 attendees each spring. As the festival-goers stagger back to their normal lives, they surely pay little attention to the Valley communities along the nearby Salton Sea that call the area home. By the time next year's festival starts, their home will be in the midst of a growing ecological crisis. The Salton Sea will begin drying up after one of the Southwest's more contentious water transfers goes into effect.

Water is obviously a hot topic in the Southwest as the region braces through one of the most severe droughts in recorded history. The water flowing from the Colorado River is so overused that the river bed dries out before even reaching the California Gulf. At the end of this year, the Salton Sea -- California's largest lake -- will begin looking more and more like that dry riverbed.

Unfortunately, the consequences of a diminishing lake out in the desert are far worse than most would expect, and without quick action, we're all about to witness an ecological catastrophe. However, this story doesn't have to have a bad ending. If state leaders are proactive and begin developing the projects to sustain the Salton Sea, the total cost to taxpayers is estimated to be just over $300 million. The cost of inaction, on the other hand, is as high as $70 billion over the coming decades -- and that's only the economic toll.

As the Salton Sea begins receding, significant consequences will quickly become apparent.

The endangered birds of the Salton Sea (Photo via Maureen Keaveny)

The Sea's floor will become exposed and the Valley's frequent windstorms will kick up the fine dust, creating an air quality nightmare. Failure to enact dust control measures could result in public health costs exceeding $1 billion each year before 2025. The dust exposed by the drying Sea is so fine that rather than being filtered out by human lungs, it will be absorbed into bloodstreams, creating a particular threat to youth and the elderly. To make matters worse, much of this dust also includes toxic chemicals from decades of agricultural runoff. While it's unfortunate those chemicals are in the Sea at all, it's far safer for them to rest on the seabed than to be circulated into the air we breathe.


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Humans won't be the only population endangered by inaction at the Salton Sea. California has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands to development and agriculture over the last century, and the Sea now serves as one of the last remaining habitats for over 400 species of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. As this migratory rest stop dries, and the relative salt content in the remaining water increases, thousands of birds will be endangered.

Solving this problem sounds particularly difficult given the strain on the region's water resources. Fortunately, restoring the Sea is not a matter of finding more water; it's a matter of properly managing existing resources. Wetlands projects that mitigate air quality threats and create bird habitat are already planned. One of the most hopeful options is the potential development of geothermal resources around the Sea, which is one of the largest sources of geothermal energy in the world. Development of geothermal projects will help keep the dust out of the air, generate revenue for sustainability projects, create good jobs and local benefits, and provide steady renewable energy to the region.

Dust control wreaks havoc on the Salton Sea (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

However, we need to fund and actually start building these projects now if we want to maintain wildlife habitat and mitigate the looming air quality crisis. It's easy for everyone living in the big cities to forget about how the entire region is impacted by the health of nearby ecosystems, but we all need to step up and pressure the politicians and state leaders to act now.

The Coachella Valley is valuable to the state in far more ways than simply being a festival destination. The Salton Sea is an important issue for everyone living in southern California, whether they know it or not. A healthy Salton Sea supports our wildlife, keeps our air quality safe, and sustains the communities that have relied on the Sea for generations.

Join others in voicing your concern for the health of the communities and habitat at the Sea by signing the Sierra Club's petition to begin funding the projects to sustain the Salton Sea.