Similar Seas: Salt Grass, Shrimp, and Selenium

Many of the predictions and concerns about the future of the Salton Sea are based on historical examples of other salt lakes around the world, and their impacts on local communities—some beneficial, and some disastrous. Three examples of highly saline terminal lakes, the Aral Sea, Owens Lake, and the Great Salt Lake, show some of the possible outcomes for the Salton Sea.

The drying of the Aral Sea has intense negative effects on communities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in terms of local economies, environments, and health. As the sea dried, dust storms and soil loss resulted in desertification of croplands and contamination of surface fresh water. [1] The shoreline retreated by miles, crippling the local economy, which was dependent on fishing and transportation. Due to extensive pesticide usage in the area, the dust from the Aral Sea contains DDT, PCBs, dioxins, and heavy metals, which have been found at high levels in pregnant and nursing women in Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan. [2] Public health studies in the area have found widespread thyroid abnormalities, as well as lung malformations in children. [3]

Obtained from
Obtained from

A less extreme example can be found in California: the now-dry Owens Lake, which dried up after river diversions in the 1920s. Owens Lake is a huge source of mineral dust that affects air quality for tens of thousands of people in the Owens Valley region. [4] The amount of airborne dust has been reduced using salt grass as wind breaks, but this method requires a huge amount of vegetation: pilot studies at Owens Lake show that at least 15% of a dry lake bed must be covered with salt grass in order to block all of the dust. [5] At the Salton Sea, which is almost four times the size of Owens Lake with 381 square miles of lakebed, this would require sixty square miles of salt grass planting and irrigation. [6]

The Great Salt Lake in Utah, in contrast, is an example of how the Sea might look in the future if it does not run dry. The Great Salt Lake has salinity up to five times that of the Salton Sea, and serves as a recreation site as well as productive habitat for phytoplankton and harvestable brine shrimp (a $50 million/year industry). [7] However, the Great Salt Lake, like all terminal lakes (those with no outflowing river), is still at risk for contaminant buildup. Levels of selenium and mercury in the Great Salt Lake have threatened wildlife populations and led to health bans on eating local birds. [8] Still, compared to the impacts of the Aral Sea, these concerns seem minor.

When considering the possible effects of a dry Salton Sea on both the Imperial Valley and Southern California as a whole, it is impossible to ignore the effect that dust storms from the lake bed would have on the millions of people who live downwind of the Sea. Inaction at the Salton Sea could have severe health and environmental implications, and direct intervention will be necessary in order to ensure that the future Salton Sea is more like the Great Salt Lake than the Aral Sea.

Written by Katherine Muller

[1] Usmanova, R.M. “Aral Sea and sustainable development.” Water Science and Technology 47.7-8 (2003): 41-47. Abstract. Web of Science.

[2] Ataniyazova, O., et al. “Continuing Progressive Deterioration of the Environment in the Aral Sea Region: Disastrous Effects on Mother and Child Health.” Acta Paediatrica 90.5 (2001): 589-591. Wiley Online Library.

[3] Bekturganov, Z.Z., et al. “Prevalence of thyroid diseases among the population of Aral Sea region and socio-economic aspects of thyroid pathology control.” World Journal of Medical Sciences 11.4 (2014): 549-551. Abstract. Web of Science.

[4] Gill, Thomas E., et al. “Elemental geochemistry of wind-erodible playa sediments, Owens Lake, California.” Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B 189.1-4 (2002): 209-13. Elsevier SD.

[5] Lancaster, Nicholas and Andy Baas. “Influence of vegetation cover on sand transport by wind: Field studies at Owens Lake, California.” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 23 (1998): 69-82. Wiley Online Library.

[6] Salton Sea Authority. “The Salton Sea.” Center for Inland Waters. (1997) San Diego State University.

[7] Belovsky, Gary E., et al. “The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem (Utah, USA): long term data and a structural equation approach.” Ecosphere 2.3 (2011): Art33. Ecological Society of America.

[8] Conover, Michael R. and John L. Vest. “Selenium and mercury concentrations in California gulls breeding on the Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 28.2 (2009): 324-329. Wiley Online Library.

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