Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Salton Sea is not the Salt'N'Sea

The Salton Sea from North Shore, February 2019, photo credit Jon Nye
         Over a century ago, eager workers widened an irrigation canal on the flanks of the Colorado River near the California-Mexico border. I picture their pleasure watching the water fill a nearly dry irrigation canal that was built to support a new agricultural enterprise in arid Southern California. Less than two years later, following a colossal drought, an epic flood in the Western United States blew the slightly widened opening all to hell. The entire flow of the Colorado River emptied into a low point, the Salton Basin, in California instead of its “normal” path to the Gulf of California.
            The Salton Sea was thus born. Communications in the early 1900s were primitive in this area, and it took some time before folks in Sacramento or Washington DC realized something massive was happening that would affect the environment and settling of this region of the country for years to come. Heroic efforts were required to plug up the “hole” in the massive river’s levy system. It took over two years to tame the flow, and by that time the Salton Sea had developed a life of its own.
            The current Salton Sea—about 100 feet deep at its maximum point—is currently drawing controversy as regional water districts are taking more and more of the limited Colorado River discharge that currently supports the Sea’s vast ecosystem. The Sea is drying up. Today, the salt content of the Sea is about twice that of seawater and only a couple of fish species (tilapia and desert pupfish) can survive and reproduce in it. For the hundreds of thousands of birds that stop at the Sea during the year, the increased salt content (salinity) means that the fish and invertebrates these birds depend on for food can’t survive much longer. This means these birds will have to find somewhere else to spend the winter or fatten up before heading further south. There really isn’t another place of its kind and magnitude for them to go to.
            Besides the fish and birds that are struggling to survive here, the people surrounding its shorelines have been bypassed by the general economic boom that colors most of California since 2013. Although this region grows about 30-40% of the US’ supply of winter fruits and vegetables, there aren’t more than one or two proper grocery stores in the surrounding communities. Essentially it's one big food desert. Unemployment is high; the people who live there, many of them undocumented, Native people, or agricultural seasonal folks, suffer from breathing dust laden with toxic compounds. As the water to the Salton Sea is diverted to San Diego and LA, the Sea is shrinking exposing its shoreline, which eventually dries out. The dust is whipped up by ferocious winds off of the desert. This dust has led to increased incidence of asthma and nosebleeds in children in the area. 
Obsidian Hill, Salton Sea, 2019, photo credit Jon Nye
            It's an environmental crisis of massive proportions. Despite vast investments of time and State funds over many years, adequate solutions addressing the full range of problems have not been articulated. To advise the State on solving the major environmental problems facing the Salton Sea and surrounding environments, a convergent, scientific and engineering approach coordinated with policy experts needs to be investigated as funding for mitigation and restoration plans go forward. I hope to spearhead this effort with colleagues from University of California Riverside.
            California enacted legislation to provide funding to begin partial restoration of the northern and southern shorelines of the Salton Sea (Salton Sea Management Plan Phase 1: 10-Year Plan, March 2017). This plan outlines engineering operations for creating built habitat for migratory birds, but it is not underpinned by current scientific knowledge of the Sea’s ecosystem that developed over the past 10-20 years when the last major studies were conducted and published.
            The University of California is in the unique position of being able to provide substantial support as California’s environmental crisis at the Salton Sea unfolds. The State’s proposal to address these environmental, public health and economic issues is the construction of marshes along the retreating shores of the Sea, as a means of providing fish and therefore bird habitat, while simultaneously reducing dust emissions. Although much research was conducted on the ecology and environmental quality of the Salton Sea prior to its recent environmental collapse, little research has been directed at the parameters required to achieve the goals of the 2018 Management Plan (2018).
            In 2018, Proposition 68, passed by California voters, provides $200M to begin these restoration projects. The Salton Sea Authority’s Management Plan can now start to be implemented. Although funding for restoration and management is coming on line, government agencies have yet to provide resources for independent academic research. The timing is critical for an integrative team to move forward. This is a golden opportunity for the University.
            As the salinity increases, organisms thriving in the Salton Sea will have to adapt to those capable of living in extreme environments. Tilapia, the major fish in the Sea, will soon die, resulting in animal populations based primarily on small invertebrates, completely altering the current diets of most of the birds found on the lake. The future of the southern California deserts and this region in particular is projected to have increased temperatures and lower rainfall. 
Marilyn holding a dessicated tilapia, photo credit Jon Nye
            Directly north, Palm Desert, Palm Springs and the other desert cities are home to 350,000 residents who moved there to enjoy clean desert air and a mild climate. The importance of our proposed work centers on developing a deeper understanding of how the Salton Sea system functions, which could provide more sustainable approaches for mitigating toxic dust risk are implemented, as well as ensure avian populations continue to have a home in the area. A robust solid science perspective--essential to the desert communities of California for planning their future in our warming world--is needed.
            Active research is in progress in the Bridging Regional Ecology, Aerosolized Toxins, and Health Effects (BREATHE) center, which is a cross-campus interdisciplinary center focusing on air quality and health effects. The center was created to address general issues of air quality and health, but there are several collaborative programs focusing on the health impacts of degraded air quality in the eastern Coachella Valley by the north shore of the Salton Sea. These studies bring together researchers from the College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT), the Center for Conservation Biology, the Division of Biomedical Sciences in the School of Medicine, as well as researchers in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS). Recently, Dr. David Lo, Director of BREATHE, testified before the State Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife on the important health impacts of the Salton Sea and the relevance to the Salton Sea Management Plan.   
            The proximity of the UC Riverside campus to the Salton Sea provides unique opportunities for undergraduate classes to visit the Sea on field trips.  Undergraduates will have the opportunity to study and observe one of the largest restoration and mitigation projects in the United States; encompassing biological, public health, air quality and environmental justice issues.  This is an extraordinary opportunity for our students interested in environmental issues to not only view and analyze the work being carried out, but also to meet with the State and local governmental, as well as private individuals, who are carrying out the work. 
UCR students inspecting the shoreline, 2018
            Come January 2020, I will be organizing a 6-month study of the outstanding research questions facing this critical region and how the Salton Sea’s changing environment might impact people living in the Imperial and Coachella Valley communities. The study will provide recommendations to managers at state and federal natural resource agencies, who will be creating research agendas to complement the current management plan, and California legislators, who will be developing public policy. 
Chris (center) educating students and UCR folks about birds, 2019, photo credit Jon Nye
            The engagement of policy makers and legislators is a completely new venture for me. The voyage started with my recent PhD student Jon Nye, who enrolled in a Science-2-Policy certificate program in the spring.
Jon Nye writes: “My PhD dissertation was about human activities on ecosystems, but not directly applied to something like a policy outcome. Near the end of my time as a graduate student I decided I should really do a better job of reaching out to a public audience.  I saw in my email inbox a new “Science 2 Policy” certificate course at UCR, that promised to help with science communication and reaching policymakers. I learned later that this is a first of its kind program to directly engage grad students with the government, of which the instructors have pointed all kinds of student led efforts to the right people in the legislative and executive branches at the state and national levels. Mostly boiling your science down to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and cut out all that jargon to get at what’s really important.
Jon Nye airboat fishing, 2019

I didn’t see an easy application of my PhD work, so I opted for a side project that my Advisor Marilyn Fogel had taken up: the Salton Sea. It was through this that I learned about some issues I hadn’t been aware of: the lost fight over water rights resulting in an increase to the exposed shoreline sediments causing a massive public health crisis due to air pollution, affecting fish and wildlife on top of significant pollution from agricultural and sewage runoff. The deeply impoverished region of southeastern CA, the poorest in the wealthiest state in the union, with a large population of undocumented people that work the fields of the Imperial Valley (worth over $2 billion). One of my professors in anthropology described parts of America as “the 3rd world in the 1st world”. The Salton Sea is one of them. And importantly, I learned of the public’s distrust of state’s promises to fix the crisis, which remain unfulfilled. With my advisor Marilyn, the S2P instructors Susan Hackwood and Doug Brown, and the S2P president William Ota on board this led to a few efforts at UCR.”

            The guru of the science-2-policy program is Professor Susan Hackwood, an accomplished UC professor, who engaged--post retirement--to spearhead a program getting UCR’s graduate students to do something completely different. Susan is a whirlwind traveling from Santa Barbara to Riverside in her Tesla largely on autopilot. She formed UCR’s College of Engineering and helped create California’s Science and Technology Council, based on her experience as a member of the National Academy of Engineers. She rolled into my office smartly dressed one June morning. I was immediately impressed and spilled my ideas to her about a potential Salton Sea study. We struck a deal on the spot. There is no looking back!
 Jon Nye finished his recent presentation at the American Geophysical Union meeting with:

Ultimately science-based policy in the Salton Sea needs to be part of the solution, working alongside with local businesses and the agricultural industry to promote public health, a clean environment and a vibrant economy. By educating scientists on the law-making process, students and researchers will be better able to communicate with policymakers. In 2020 we plan to publish a finalized science-based policy memo to send to policymakers in Sacramento. The S2P certificate program (which I participated in as a student) is planned to take on new students in Spring 2020. By embedding a student in the Salton Sea Authority we’ll have a way to work with directly implementing science guided approaches to Salton Sea projects. Finally, by gaining input from the community we can guide are own research in helping the people living nearby. From the level of students to senior professors, we scientists can participate in shaping environmental policy rather than be bystanders waving from the sidelines. “

            Salton Sea has the best and the worst that California has to offer. I hope that in the coming decade, we’ll be able to turn the worst parts into something offering health and prosperity to the people, plants, and animals of region. For more information go to:
Southern Salton Sea, February 2019, photo credit Jon Nye

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