The Sinking Salton Sea

A fight over the California lake's dwindling water is a big problem for the state's renewable-energy progress

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[Sound effects of freshwater filling stations]

Sally Adee: In California's Imperial Valley, freshwater filling stations are everywhere. Some are as big as gas stations, others as compact as soda machines. They all sell salt-free water. But why should the Imperial Valley need these stations? This desert oasis on the California side of the Mexican border gets three quarters of California's entire share of the massive Colorado River.

[sound of river]

Sally Adee: The Colorado starts in the Rocky Mountains and waters much of the arid American southwest. The river flows through Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona, then spills over thousands of acres of farmland. It ends up in a giant drainage ditch—the largest body of water in California—known as the Salton Sea.

Al Kalin: Before all the dams were put in, the Colorado River was a real muddy, muddy river. It looked like a milkshake, it was so muddy.

Sally Adee: That's Al Kalin. He grows carrots and onions here in the Imperial Valley. He's been letting me drive around the valley with him in his truck.

Sally Adee: The Salton Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and getting more so all the time, because it barely rains here. Maybe 3 inches a year. So when the Salton Sea evaporates in the desert heat, the only thing that fills it up again is the agricultural runoff from farmers like Al Kalin. This water is not hospitable to life—with one exception: algae. Those guys love it here.

Al Kalin: There are certain types of plankton that phosphoresce when they're excited or moved. It looks like a blue neon light that comes out of 'em. You have these beautiful blue tides.

Sally Adee: So to excite them, you throw things at them?

Al Kalin: Yeah! Kids would throw rocks in the water and everywhere a rock hit, it would glow blue. Or shake 'em up. I mean, kids used to get a quart jar of 'em and take 'em to school to share. You know, they'd turn the lights out in the room and shake the jar.

Sally Adee: They may be beautiful, but as these algae blooms die off, they choke the oxygen out of the water. For a few years, that created massive, stinking fish kills. Now all the fish have died except a couple of flinty tilapia.

[sound of gravelly footsteps and soughing water purification plant in background]

Sally Adee: If that weren't enough bad news, the Salton Sea is shrinking as well.

Jose Payez: My name is Jose Payez. I work for Imperial County. I'm a park ranger. Every year, we have less water.

Sally Adee: Last year the sea dropped four feet.

Sally Adee: What about fish? Do you fish out here?

Jose Payez: No, I don't. I don't fish.

Sally Adee: You think the Salton Sea has problems now, wait till it dries up.

Al Kalin: This is the playa that will generate the dust as the sea continues to shrink.

Sally Adee: Al Kalin is pointing at a huge expanse of bare beach. When the sea level drops, it exposes playa, which is a silty, gritty sand that's full of nasty ingredients.

Al Kalin: The dust generated off that playa is extremely high in salts—some of the types of salt which become very toxic.

Sally Adee: Toxic how?

Al Kalin: Toxic like…well, it's bad for your health; it burns the leaves on the plants, creates asthma attacks. Sodium sulfate is one type of salt that's generated on these playas. Very fine, somewhere in the PM10 area. As the wind blows, it's picked up and put in the atmosphere, and it travels quite a distance.

Sally Adee: The dust clouds won't just hurt the farms. There's another kind of industry that will get hurt.

Sally Adee: So what are we looking at right now? This is rather apocalyptic looking.

Al Kalin: [laughing] You got that right. This used to be a duck club, and a new geothermal company that just moved in the valley bought it.

Sally Adee: A thousand miles beneath the Salton Sea is a geothermal treasure trove—the San Andreas Fault. The fault's hot volcanic steam could produce enough power to rival a big nuclear power plant. It's pure, emissions-free, renewable energy. Geothermal prospectors are staking their claim around this hot zone. Their plants already straddle the edges of the Salton Sea, and more are coming.

Al Kalin: You can see the steam coming up right there.

[ambient geothermal sounds]

Sally Adee: But if the Salton Sea keeps shrinking, there will be more dust clouds—and that will spell trouble for the geothermal plants.

Mark Gran: You got cooling towers, you got separators, crystallizers, and the clarifiers. There's a lot of pots and pans here.

Sally Adee: Mark Gran is a vice president at CalEnergy, the energy company that owns most of the geothermal plants in the Imperial Valley.

Mark Gran: Certainly any dust that has chemicals is not good for anybody around. Turbines are very sensitive, and you can't have dirt in them. Any other dust flying around certainly doesn't help us and makes things more inefficient and costs us more to run. The most pressing issue would be, environmentally, the safety of our employees.

Sally Adee: The shrinking of the Salton Sea is due to something you don't normally think of as a problem: conservation. Here's what's happening: The Salton Sea's only source of water is the farm runoff from farmers like Al Kalin. But not everyone is happy to see that water dribbling off into a poisoned lake—a lake you can't even drink out of. A lake you can't even fish out of. Especially when they're desperate for water supplies themselves.

Mark Gran: You had the other states on the river that wanted our water.

Sally Adee: You mean like Nevada, Arizona, Colorado?

Mark Gran: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado—all those that were growing but they needed more. They look at us and our farmers, and they see the water coming off the end of the field and into canals and into the Salton Sea, and they think we are wasting water.

Sally Adee: So the federal government mandated that farmers conserve some water and send it to San Diego.

Mark Gran: Yeah, they basically put a gun to our head and said you're going to find a way to conserve and get water to more populated areas, or we're going to come up with something and enforce it on you.

Sally Adee: Mark Gran isn't just some guy who works for CalEnergy. He's lived down here for 35 years. His family owned movie theaters in the Imperial Valley. He has history here. And he gets pretty inflamed about the water grab.

Mark Gran: They're lusting after our water. Well, what happens when we can't produce the food you eat and your head of lettuce goes to 10 bucks a head? Now the water transfer between us and San Diego—selling water to San Diego—part of that was to deal with the Salton Sea, the environmental issues. The latest price tag we've heard on that thing was [US $]9 billion dollars.

Sally Adee: Back in February, a federal judge ruled that the water transfer—you know, the one Mark Gran described as—

Mark Gran: A gun to our head.

Sally Adee: —the judge said that the agreement violated the constitution. You'd think that would make Mark Gran and Al Kalin and the other Imperial Valley residents happy. But it doesn't.

Mark Gran: What it did was, it kept the lions at bay. Every time they open it up again, they're going to come for more of our water. We don't have the political clout that a Los Angeles or a Las Vegas has.

Al Kalin: Everybody's scrambling to try to renegotiate this deal so we again can have peace on the river.

Sally Adee: In fact, right now, everyone's worried.

Mark Gran: You only have so much water, and if everybody else runs out of water, guess where they're gonna look? You have the wolves looking for water in many different places, and they're looking at us, and if we don't have something that protects us, we're going to have a problem.

Sally Adee: This isn't just a little story about a little town on the border of Mexico. The Colorado is one long river, with far more needs than it could ever meet. What's happening right now in the Imperial Valley could be the future of the entire American Southwest. I'm Sally Adee.

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.