Environment & Science

Salton Sea preservation gets a hand from President Obama

President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
The remnants of an abandoned marina are seen at Salton City beside the Salton Sea on March 19, 2015.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
A seagull stands beside algae-affected water next to the North Shore Yacht Club at the Salton Sea on March 19, 2015.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
Property for sale signs are seen next to the North Shore Yacht Club at the Salton Sea on March 19, 2015.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
Pelicans fly over the Salton Sea at sunrise on July 7, 2011 in Salton City.
David McNew/Getty Images
President Barack Obama at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Stateline, Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.
The sun sets on the waters near Red Hill Marina at the Salton Sea on March 19, 2015.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images


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California's largest lake, the Salton Sea, is in trouble. Southeast of Palm Springs, the manmade lake — manmade by an engineering accident about a hundred years ago — has become an ecological disaster.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a new effort to help fix it.

"In partnership with California, we're going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late, and that's going to help a lot of folks all across the West," Obama said.

As part of Obama's visit to Lake Tahoe, the administration announced its plans to partner with the state of California to “support implementation of the state’s Salton Sea Task Force Agency Action plan, boost the region’s climate resilience through innovative conservation approaches, spur economic growth by developing new clean energy resources, improve public health, and provide a path forward for the [Salton] Sea.”

Under the plan, the federal government would:

The California Natural Resources Agency is spearheading California's preservation efforts. The agency's Joaquin Esquivel says that the sea is a vital part of the Pacific Flyway, which is one of the major paths migratory birds take across North America.

"Millions of birds every year use the Salton Sea, and with 90 percent of California's wetlands having been developed over, it's actually a critical point on the Pacific Flyway," Esquivel told KPCC.

There are also endangered species there, Esquivel said. While the sea is somewhat artificial, Esquivel says that depends on the timeframe you look at.

"A body of water has inhabited that space every few hundred years or so," Esquivel said.

Water has diverted into the area every few hundred years, creating a freshwater body. The reason why agriculture is profitable and able to be done in the Imperial Valley is the sediment left behind by water flowing into the area over the years.

Now the Salton Sea faces diminished water and could start drying up even faster than it already has been. The Imperial Irrigation District is going to stop putting as much water into the sea, beginning in 2018.

Bringing the state in line and using agricultural water for urban use instead means less water for the sea, Esquivel said. It's been under some constraints since about 2003, but the state also said at the time that it would help slow the shrinking of the sea. Critics say the state hasn't done enough, pushing the sea to a crisis point.

The Salton Sea has left behind what's known as "playa," which is the dried-up land around it that used to be underwater. It's also a terminal lake, which means its water doesn't go on to flow into the ocean.

The salts and other nutrients left behind are at the bottom of the lake now, and that has created a terrible smell around the sea thanks to all of the sulfur. It created a smell in the area several years ago known as "the big stink."

California Gov. Jerry Brown put together a Salton Sea task force about a year ago which found that acreage targets should be set to account for the exposed playa.

"When we talk about the sea, and the reduced amount of water that we get, it's still going to receive around 700,000 acre feet a year of water, which is a significant amount of water," Esquivel said.

Esquivel explained the future of the sea.

"In about 10, 15 years, the sea will have receded a bit, and on that exposed playa, what you'll have are rich bio-life habitats, perhaps the siting of other air mitigation projects," Esquivel said.

The Salton Sea is beginning to evolve, so the question is how the sea is managed as that happens, Esquivel said.

"The sea is this sort of artificial thing, but we own it, because we've maintained it this long. And so the question is, how do we collectively get these projects into the ground, and keep the playa down, and preserve the qualities that we all know from the sea and want to continue to develop," Esquivel said.