California’s Salton Sea: Battling ecological decline with legislative progress

Salton Sea recreation area sign
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The Salton Sea is an inland body of water located in California’s Imperial Valley. Its birth in 1905 was accidental, created when flood waters from the Colorado River gushed through irrigation canals and poured into a depression that was once a prehistoric lake. Over a short span, the Salton Sea became the Golden State’s largest lake, boasting a surface area of 343 square miles.

According to the California Department of Water ResourcesOpens in a new tab., “The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, extending from the Coachella Valley into Imperial Valley. It is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. Though saltier than the ocean, the Salton Sea supports an abundance of fish and is a food source for millions of migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. Over the last several decades, water levels at the Salton Sea have declined and salinity concentrations have increased due to climate fluctuations, agricultural conservation measures, cropping practices, and reduced inflows from Mexico. Declining lake levels create more particulate air pollution that threatens important bird habitat and poses public health risks.”

Burrowing Owls at Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
Burrowing Owls at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife RefugeOpens in a new tab., June 2021, US Fish and Wildlife Service

From Thriving Oasis to Environmental Hazard.

For several decades, the Salton Sea was a haven for tourists and anglers. It was a freshwater lake teeming with fish and embraced by a serene landscape. However, climate change, evaporation, and agricultural runoff combined to cast a shadow over this once-thriving oasis. The water started receding, and toxins and hazardous elements such as arsenic and selenium in the lakebed became exposed. Algae blooms and bacteria proliferated in the toxic environment, contributing to the degradation of the lake.

According to State Senator Steve Padilla (D-San Diego)Opens in a new tab., experts estimate that by 2030, the sea will lose more than half of its volume, which will result in approximately a 3-foot decline in the water level.

Impact on Surrounding Communities.

Padilla says that the Salton Sea’s deteriorationOpens in a new tab. has dire consequences for the nearby communities, primarily inhabited by Latino agricultural workers. The exposure to airborne toxins has resulted in an alarming rate of hospitalization for children with asthma, which is double the state average. Moreover, Imperial County, which houses the Salton Sea, faces some of the country’s worst air quality challenges.

Abandoned Salton Sea homes
Abandoned, salt encrusted structures on the East shore of the Salton Sea, Sept. 2004. GregManninLB via Wikimedia CommonsOpens in a new tab..

Uniting to Save the Lake: The Salton Sea Conservancy.

In response to the escalating crisis, numerous environmental justice groups have been pushing for remedial action. In February, Sen. Padilla introduced Senate Bill 583 (S.B. 583)Opens in a new tab., proposing the creation of the Salton Sea Conservancy. This organization would act as the central agency managing all conservation projects in the Salton Sea Region.

“This is an environmental crisis that not only impacts the ecology of the region, but the people as well. Communities near the Salton Sea are at breaking point,” said Senator PadillaOpens in a new tab.. He added, “By unifying all of the conservation projects surrounding the Sea, we can streamline efforts and bring about necessary change faster.”

Map of the Salton Sea
Salton Sea Project MapOpens in a new tab., California Department of Water Resources

Gaining Support and Momentum.

“The Salton Sea needs long-term management that is strongly guided by local voices and leadership,” said Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s Salton Sea Program Director. “Audubon greatly appreciates Senator Padilla’s leadership in authoring SB 583, which will create a conservancy that is governed by a board of locally-selected leaders in partnership with state officials. The new Salton Sea Conservancy will be a conduit for funding projects at the Sea in ways that are responsive to local needs.”

“We are excited to have a new partner in Senator Padilla, reinforcing our Salton Sea restoration efforts,” said Assemblymember Eduardo GarciaOpens in a new tab., joint author on the legislation. “A Salton Sea Conservancy creates a necessary avenue to finance operation and maintenance of restoration projects and ensure a healthier, more sustainable future for our sea and surrounding communities.”

Progress in Legislation.

S.B. 583Opens in a new tab. recently passed the California Assembly Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support on a 10-0 vote and is now moving to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. If enacted, the Salton Sea Conservancy will empower local communities and stakeholders in the restoration process, thereby addressing the urgent ecological and public health issues faced by the region.

The Salton Sea stands at a critical juncture. With unified efforts and the potential formation of the Salton Sea Conservancy, there is hope that this once-flourishing lake can be restored, and the surrounding communities can rebuild a healthier and more sustainable environment.

Top Image: A sign pointing to the Salton Sea State Recreation AreaOpens in a new tab. (2016), via Wikimedia Commons


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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