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The Environmental Impact of the Dwindling Salton Sea


California’s ongoing drought has sapped water aquifers and reservoirs, creating problems that could spell disaster in the coming years.

Take the Salton Sea, for instance. The state’s largest lake, this 360-square-mile body of water was created by accident over 100 years ago when agricultural runoff pooled in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. For a time, it became a playground for Hollywood stars. Now, largely abandoned, it has begun to dry up, leaving experts to contemplate disastrous effects on nearby communities.

Why it MattersThe Salton Sea's Water Supply is Dwindling

Home to over 400 bird species, the Salton Sea is of vital concern to biologists, who aim to preserve a key natural habitat. More concerning to public officials, however, is the impact the lake’s disappearance might have on local residents.

Thanks to decades of farm runoff, the lakebed had become toxic, with high levels of selenium, arsenic and traces of DDT. Without water to hold these toxins in place, wind could begin whipping these substances into the air, creating a serious health hazard for local communities.

It’s happened before. About a century ago, Owens Lake was drained by the Los Angeles aqueduct. As the lakebed dried, billowing dust infiltrated communities, bringing with it particle levels that were 10 times what modern federal officials consider safe. After spending $1.3 billion on mitigation, California continues to struggle with the problem; and the barren lakebed is still a top source of dust storms in the United States.

To avoid a similar disaster, experts say state officials should divert water to the Salton Sea. Unfortunately, that’s not particularly practical at a time when communities can’t find enough water to keep their residents hydrated. As an alternative strategy, some have suggested building earthen berms to keep the dust at bay; however, no one knows if this would work.

Whatever the case, experts are warning state leaders to act quicker rather than later, since projections estimate that lake levels will drop 20 feet in the next 15 years. If we all take steps to lower our water consumption throughout the day, we’ll be in a better position to withstand drought conditions.

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