By Todd C. Frankel
29 May 2015
ALONG THE SALTON SEA, CALIFORNIA (Washington Post) – The bone-dry lake bed burned crystalline and white in the midday sun. Ecologist Bruce Wilcox hopped out of his truck and bent down to scoop up a handful of the gleaming, crusty soil.
Wilcox squeezed, then opened his fist. The desert wind scattered the lake bed like talcum powder.
“That’s disturbing,” Wilcox said, imagining what would happen if thousands of acres of this dust took flight. It’s the kind of thing that keeps him up at night.
The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, 360 square miles of unlikely liquid pooled in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Now the sea is slipping away. The Salton Sea needs more water — but so does just about every other place in California. And what is happening here perfectly illustrates the fight over water in the West, where epic drought has revived decades-old battles and the simple solutions have all been tried.
Allowing the Salton Sea to shrink unabated would be catastrophic, experts say. Dried lake bed, called playa, is lighter and flies farther than ordinary soil. Choking clouds of particulate matter driven by powerful desert winds could seed health problems for 650,000 people as far away as Los Angeles. The effects would be even worse along the lake, where communities already fail federal air-quality standards and suffer the highest asthma rates in the state.
But the fate of the Salton Sea depends on a complicated series of deals that pit farms against cities, water rights against water needs, old ways of life against the new. The drought has forced a reconsideration of these agreements, with each side jealously guarding its claim to what little water is left. […]
Bird populations would plummet if the lake shrank further, if wetlands disappeared and fish populations withered. But it is the dust that scares people. After years of farm runoff, the lake bed is toxic, with high levels of arsenic, selenium, and even traces of the banned pesticide DDT.
That nightmare scenario has played out before, 280 miles north, in the Owens River Valley. Nearly 100 years ago, Lake Owens was drained by the Los Angeles aqueduct to quench the young city’s burgeoning thirst. The dust billowed out of the dry lake bed, feeding dust levels that today can reach 10 times the level federal officials consider safe.
Today, efforts to control the damage drag on at Lake Owens. More than $1.3 billion has been spent on mitigation. But the barren lake bed is still the No. 1 source of dust in the United States.
“All the mistakes made there are the ones we’re trying to not to repeat here,” Wilcox said. [more]