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Salton Sea a glimpse into the future?

May 16, 2018

I admit it.  I dragged my family to go see the Salton Sea.  But they came without complaining, a testament to their team effort!  The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, the second lowest point in North America (the lowest is on our  trip!), has a unique historical past and might just give us a glimpse of what is to come.

The Salton Sea or Salton Sinks history goes back to prehistoric times.  Located on the famous San Andreas fault, this part of the earth has shifted several times to flood the area creating an inland sea that dried and flooded several times.  This ancient seabed is similar to the area around Southern Alberta where we live.  These flat lake beds provide fertile agricultural land in Alberta and the Coachella and Imperial valleys of California. The major difference is that in addition to the agricultural significance, this area in California was mined for the salt deposits left behind from previous flows.

 

Now things get really interesting once people become involved!  To support the farming and orchards in the Coachella and Imperial valleys things need to be changed.  There just isn't enough water!  Seems to be an issue that still screams today.  Irrigation channels and diversion dikes were built, but this was before the Hoover Dam as well as many of the other major dams on the Colorado river.  So in 1905 when the Colorado river swelled from heavy rains and snow melt it overran the Imperial Valley dike flowing into the dry lake-bed.  Unable to fix the flow the entire content of the Colorado river flowed into the Salton Sink for almost 2 years creating the lake.  Water problem solved!

 

Fast forward to today and we now see a lake in crisis.  Flows have continually been limited over the years to create an ever-shrinking lake.  Salt levels have risen to the point that they are so toxic to fish that only tilapia can survive.  Overrun with an invasive barnacle.  Add to this the fact that each year fewer birds return along their migratory route.  Even during our visit we noticed that the water no longer reached the boat docks at visitor center.  With the heavy competition for the limited water, this lake is no longer the winner it once was after the flood.

Seeing this dying lake in person makes me wonder if we could see the same thing in Southern Alberta someday?  Could this happen to Times of drought and increased water usage for agriculture, people and industry tax a resource that is renewable, but limited. We talk about water usage in grade 8 science but I don't think we truly understand it's value.  I came across a book on our travels called Cadillac Desert which chronicles the land development and water policies in the western United States.  It's on my reading list when I get back home and something to add to my classroom library.  I think it's important to see that even in developed countries we can make these kinds of mistakes.  Hopefully we see that this one lake has a future that can spread if we don't look for solutions.

 

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