Saturday, September 15, 2012
The Salton Sea: Death and Politics in the Great American Water Wars
This week, Los Angeles got a whiff of the future.
A heinous rotten-egg smell settled into the metropolis, a stench more familiar to residents lining the Salton Sea, some 150 miles to the east. It was this 376-square-mile body of water, created by accident in the middle of the desert over a century ago, that belched up the fetid cloud. And such episodes will continue to plague Southern California as the collapse of the Salton Sea ecosystem accelerates over the coming years.
Considered to be among the world’s most vital avian habitats and — until recently — one of its most productive fisheries, the Salton Sea is in a state of wild flux, the scene of fish and bird die-offs of unfathomable proportions. It was the resulting sea-bottom biomass that a storm churned earlier this week, releasing gases that drifted into Los Angeles.
This is just the latest episode in the Salton Sea’s long, painful history of sickness and health and booms and busts — a stinky side effect of a great American experiment to civilize the western deserts. By economic measurements, this experiment has been an astounding success. By environmental measurements, it’s shaping up to be pure disaster.
These days, in the 115-degree heat of summer the Sea stinks so bad that the reek sticks in your throat like Elmer’s Glue. Chemical-laced dust kicked up from its rapidly receding shoreline contributes to an asthma rate for local children three times higher than the state average. It’s been variously called a natural wonder, a national embarrassment, paradise, and the ecological equivalent of the Chernobyl disaster.
The saga of the Sea is one of tangled government agencies, farmers whose crops cradle its shores, local Native American tribes, legislators, environmentalists, and private water utilities. It’s about politics, ecological frontiers, brutal ironies, and historical wounds still smarting. But more than anything else, it’s about water: those who get it, those who don’t, and those who outright loot it. The Salton Sea is the latest battle in the American water wars, and without drastic action, in a matter of years it will fall — and bring Southern California down with it.
In the ‘90s, Steve Horvitz, then Superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, would watch as masses of dying fish struggled up to his beaches. Now, retired to a small Northern California town, he watches golfers struggle up to the green that abuts his backyard. Charismatic, sharp, and highly defensive of the Salton Sea’s ills, for a decade Horvitz acted as its de facto representative, battling bad press, bad politics, and outright lies — foremost among them: The Salton Sea is dead and gone.
“It’s the opposite of dead,” Horvitz says. “It’s turning into something that won’t support whatever life is in it now, but I take great issue when I read that the Salton Sea is dying. It’s not. It’s changing.” continue>>>