The dying Salton Sea and the plan to save it

Floyd Hollinger as the Salton Sea Santa. “Santa Ski-In” started by Helen Burns, property owner at Salton Sea Beach, about 1960. (Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum)
Floyd Hollinger, aka Salton Sea Santa, puts on a show during the “Santa Ski-In” started by Helen Burns, property owner at Salton Sea Beach, sometime around 1960. Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum

The Salton Sea was once an oasis for the Hollywood elite. Today, California’s largest lake is not only an environmental hazard, it is also drying up.

“It was a playground for the rich and the famous, the Hollywood crowd used to go out there and cavort and water ski and fish,” said Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, who has covered the Salton Sea for 20 years. “It was sort of an adjunct to Palm Springs. It was a big, big deal.”

The Salton Sea, a roughly 345-square-mile body of water located about an hour drive south of Palm Springs, is at an environmental cliff and government inaction could push it over the edge by the end of 2017, scientists say.

That’s when a requirement struck by the Imperial Irrigation District to fill the lake with water from the Colorado River expires. The Salton Sea’s fate seems all but sealed. Along with the prohibitive cost associated with restoration, lawmakers continue to be preoccupied with California’s drought.

Skippers sail trim yachts, not subs, 40 fathoms below the Pacific on California's Salton Sea. (Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum)
Skippers sail on California’s Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum

Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency, said the lake certainly isn’t restorable to its 1950s glory, when a thriving beachfront made it a destination for weekend relaxation.

“We need to manage expectations a little bit in the valley and look at a smaller but sustainable water body,” Wilcox said on “Which Way, L.A.?

But the problem is bigger than a shrinking lake. The Salton Sea not only serves as a depository for several rivers but also collects agricultural runoff. The runoff deposits toxic chemicals that cause health and environmental problems.

When the water recedes, dust and chemicals from the playa are whipped up and carried all over Southern California. But the dust doesn’t need to be toxic to be a challenge, said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“You do not want that dust to blow around when the playa gets exposed,” Marcus said.

The dust alone can cause difficulty breathing and the toxic airborne soil from the Salton Sea has been linked to an increase in respiratory diseases in surrounding areas in recent years.

Guy Lombardo at Date Palm Beach with pals Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra Guy Lombardo held many speed records on water, some set here at Eilers Date Palm Beach. (Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum)
Guy Lombardo at Date Palm Beach with his pals Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. Photo courtesy of the Salton Sea History Museum

Restoring the lake to conditions similar to what it enjoyed during the height of its popularity would cost billions of dollars, Marcus said. Instead, officials are looking to mitigate the impact of the water receding.

Failing to keep the Salton Sea from drying up could cost California more than fixing it. A report released last month by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute found that it could cost the state as much as $70 billion by the year 2045. That report, titled “Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea,” claims worsening air quality, dramatically reduced property values and lost tourism revenue could cost the state about $10 billion more than its plan to fix the lake.

Rocky Hill, Salton Sea, California. Photo credit: Robb Hannawacker/Flickr