A Clean Bill(s) of Health for Salton Sea Residents

Leer en español 

Last week, an article was published by KCET that addressed the question of Why Don’t Californians Care About Saving the Salton Sea? The authors conclude that the seemingly artificial nature of the Sea is what keeps it from gaining public support, especially by environmental activists. However, I would argue that the real issue with getting Californians to care about the Salton Sea is an issue of environmental justice. Residents of the Salton Sea region are among the poorest in the country, and simply don’t have the affluence to attract the level of attention that saving the Sea requires. In southern California, this makes it difficult to compete with the interests of neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and La Jolla.

However, we can see some progress being made to address these issues. Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown took action on some key legislation for the Coachella Valley, including the bills AB 2 and AB 1059.

AB 2, also known as the Community Revitalization Investment Authorities (CRIA) bill, will allow disadvantaged areas throughout the state to create a CRIA. A previous law dissolved many of these authorities in 2012. In particular, this bill includes means to secure funds for each CRIA to improve infrastructure, provide affordable housing, and further develop local economies, which would all be valuable at the Salton Sea. Communities would benefit directly from improved neighborhood conditions, increased employment opportunities, and reduced crime rates. However, these changes could also attract more visitors to the Sea to spend time enjoying its beauty and grandness for themselves. Improving economy and empowering community members in the region is one key way that policy can drive other Californians to care about the Salton Sea.


The low-income communities near the Salton Sea are also plagued with some of the worst air quality in the country. AB 1059, or the California Communities Environmental Health Screening bill, begins to address this environmental injustice. The bill requires the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to acknowledge and address the data, or lack thereof, collected by the CalEnviroScreen tool in the California-Mexico border region. This includes air quality, water quality, toxic release and hazardous waste data that are used as decision-making indicators throughout the state. This bill will provide much needed resources to combat and address the negative environmental and public health issues that impact neighborhoods within the Salton Sea air basin. Further, the collected data will enable other Californians to see the magnitude of the public health costs of the drying Sea.

Click for more information from the CA Air Resources Board!
Click for more information from the CA Air Resources Board!

Few Californians are informed about the challenges facing the Salton Sea today, and even fewer have visited the Sea to experience them firsthand. However, all Californians will ultimately foot the bill for the environmental and public health catastrophe if we do not address environmental justice issues and further empower the local communities. So, support your local and state officials on bills like AB 2 and AB 1059, and get out to visit the Salton Sea for yourself!

Written by Holly Mayton

6 thoughts on “A Clean Bill(s) of Health for Salton Sea Residents”

  1. Those “poor people” who live in the area can blame the 4 rich farming families who have poured toxic compounds with impunity into the Accidental Sea via run-off from their extremely profitable farms (who will now be paid giant sums of cash to not plant anything as the Colorado River water will be diverted to the affluent San Diego area). They ALL have been raping that area for decades and now they want someone ELSE to pay for the repairs. You don’t get it….it will not be “fixed” as the entire issue was created by an accident that is now trying to repair itself naturally. The cheapest way will be to cover the remaining marsh with clay in about 10 years when it nothing more than a giant toxic mudpit. Everyone in the Imperial Valley will have moved away by then, or they will have cancer and be in the process of checking into hospitals 300 miles away.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Jerry. I am of the opinion that restoration of the Salton Sea involves moving beyond casting blame on any particular stakeholder. The important thing is that moving forward, all the stakeholders (including local growers) show initiative in being part of the greater solution to prevent any future harm to human and ecosystem health. And fortunately, this seems to increasingly be the case on restoration proposals such as the SSRREI that are developed with input from many parties.
      While some income from the QSA does go to subsidize farmers for profit they could have accrued from growing on the fields that are now left fallow, other portions of that income are directed towards Salton Sea restoration. This will enable the IID, Imperial County, Salton Sea Authority, and all of the other stakeholders to work on restoration plans that not only the most cost effective, but also the most beneficial for the local communities’ health and economies in order to avoid the worst case scenario for the Imperial Valley that you mention here.
      And to address the issue of the “accidental” Sea, check out our blog post from this past June:

      Holly Mayton


  2. Hi Holly,

    I like your post, but the Salton basin is the northern arm of the Colorado River delta. In trenches cut by Bombay Beach Bruce Driscoll, an earthquake geologist from UCSD, has found five distinct lakes from about 1200 to the present. I myself have seen at least eight inflows in the literature from the time Europeans started keeping anecdotal records of their journeys through the region (1840-1905) until Boulder Dam was built. In fact, the Alamo River, where the first cut was made to supply the Imperial Valley, starts at the Colorado and runs into the Salton Sea.

    This means that the pattern of the Colorado was great flood, several smaller floods, then another large flood, etc. down through time for at least 5,000,000. years.

    Since the Colorado River was a navigable river at the advent of Statehood for Claifornia (it was served by steamboarts at that time, until about 1907 or so), this means that public trust is involved in this matter, though the State of California doesn’t want to admit it. Since that is so, the taking of the water by San Diego is in real legal jeopardy, even though they don’t want to admit it.

    Good article on environmental justice, though. At State Meetings this issue has been brought up, and the governing boards of the committees have heard it before. They hem and haw and act sympathetic, but when push comes to shove, they acquiesce to the water hustlers from MWD and San Diego every time.


    1. Thanks for your thought provoking comment, Chris. In order to adequately engage in a discussion on Public Trust, I enlisted Salton Sea Sense’s history expert, Todd Luce. The following is a summary of what we came up with–

      First, as you have pointed out, the path of the Colorado River has changed its course many times in the past five million years. The size, scope, and exact periods when flood waters formed lakes in the basin continue to be the subject of scholarly debate, but the fact that this phenomena occurred many times is indisputable.

      Second, your assertion that these floodwaters were often navigable is also true. Prior to the flood of 1905-1907, two separate expeditions floated down flood channels from the Colorado River to the Salton Basin. In 1891, Godfrey Sykes set out on a makeshift skiff and made his way from Yuma to a series of mudflats just north of present day Holtville. The following year, a newspaper reporter named H.W. Patton sailed through a break in the Colorado River to the confluence with the New River and on northwards past Mexicali.

      You make a solid case for the link between navigability and the doctrine of public trust. To see how one might apply public trust to the case of the Salton Sea, it might be useful to look at the case of Mono Lake, where environmental groups used it to challenge water appropriations by the Department of Water and Power (DWP). The Mono Lake Committee (MLC) first introduced Public Trust as a legal challenge to the DWP in 1978. After sixteen years of struggle, the MLC hammered out a deal with the DWP that curbed water appropriations from the lake’s feeder streams. This signal victory must, however be qualified. As water historian Norris Hundley has pointed out, the deal struck a balance between beneficial use (which favored the DWP), and public trust. Quoting Mono Lake ranger, David Carle, Hundley also notes that “ ‘Public trust values are, in great part, a subjective product of changeable attitudes and beliefs.’ ” [1] This suggests that public will is crucial for mounting a successful public trust challenge to the “water hustlers.”

      These subjective values involve the public’s notion of what constitutes “nature”, as addressed in the KCET article at the beginning of my original post. While we don’t claim that public concern for the Salton Sea does not exist, it does not seem to exist to the extent that it could quash the claims of these powerful interests (yet). However, the entire purpose of our blog is to educate and engage the public on the diversity of issues facing the Salton Sea, so hopefully we can play a role in changing that fact. We greatly appreciate your interest in protecting the Salton Sea, and in our blog, and your poignant observations on the issues of Public Trust.

      In closing, I want to share Todd’s perspective on four potential obstacles to the use of Public Trust (PT) as a challenge to the QSA:

      1. In 1924, and again in 1928, the Salton Sea was designated as a “public water reserve” (drainage sump) by executive order. If the basis of the PT doctrine is to protect the public’s use of the Salton Sea, does it square with the primary legal definition of the sea as a drainage sump? If wastewater ceases to flow into treatment reservoirs, for example, would this also constitute a violation of PT? (Admittedly, this is not an equivalent comparison, merely a meditation on the likely official responses to a PT challenge).

      2. The waters of the Alamo and New Rivers will continue to flow into the Salton Sea from the Valle de Mexicali. True, the volume of these rivers north of the border will decline as the QSA goes into full effect after 2017. However, the waters that feed these rivers north of the border have always been from the irrigation runoff of the Imperial Valley. Because that irrigation runoff flows predominantly from the All American Canal via the Imperial Dam, can this be considered the natural flow of the Colorado River? Is the All American Canal the equivalent of the Colorado River, and does the law of navigability apply to it?

      3. The negotiations for a water transfer from the IID to the MWD began in the early 1980s after decades of flooding at the Salton Sea. Charged by the State of California with gross water waste, the IID was all but forced into these negotiations. Considering that PT must be balanced with “beneficial use,” especially in an arid region, does conservation of water (according to the 4.4 Plan) outweigh the values of ecological preservation? Would PT stand a reasonable chance as a legal challenge when over drawn water resources (coupled with ongoing drought), have led to a state of emergency?

      4. According to the QSA, the onus for the preservation of ecological values at the Salton Sea rests with the State of California, especially after 2017 when the sea will rapidly evaporate. The state has yet to produce tangible mitigation efforts other than the commission of another round of studies (see: Tom Perry, “Gov. Jerry Brown orders study aiming to restore parts of shrinking Salton Sea,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10, 2015.) In the event that the state finally executes “shovel ready” plans to save portions of the sea’s ecology (which are currently set to be presented to the state legislature by March 2016 according to AB 1095), especially the diverse bird population, has it fulfilled its mandate in a way that either accords with, or circumvents, the PT doctrine?

      Thanks again for a great comment, and we look forward to further dialogue!
      Holly Mayton


      [1] Norris Hundley, The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, A History (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2001), 346.


      1. Hi,
        I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. The facts are not up for debate.

        Generally, most who have written about the sea admit at the beginning of their articles that there have been many seas in the basin in the past 5,000,000 years.

        Dr. Bruce Driscoll’s carbon 14 samples from Salt Creek document 5 big lakes in the past 1,000 years. And the footnotes I cited, which you did not include, prove there were 8 floods from the time westerners first visited the river until the flood in 1905.

        And, as far as navigable rivers go, I was talking about the Colorado River as a whole, not some tiny streams in the beds of the New and Alamo rivers that Sykes et. al. floated on. The Colorado had steamboats from 1848 to 1907, and formal recognition from the U.S. government as a navigable river.

        What I was saying is that the Salton basin has been a part of the Colorado River system, as its delta, for 5,000,000 years. Public trust stems from that. The river and its floods into the basin preceded human
        settlement. Since the sink still exists, it still applies today. Human habitation is just coincidental to the issue.
        forms, and they still apply as much now as they did then.


  3. I made those comments last year. Since then you were kind enough to supply a map by the USGS from 1936 which delineate the outline of the Colorado River Delta. The Salton sea lies within the demarcation of the delta. In law a river ecosystem extends laterally over its entire flood plain and longitudinally from headwaters to the sea , lake or sink. The dynamism of rivers includes seasonal high and low flows, changes in channel and flood plain forms, and drought and flood events. Floods considered catastrophic to humans are not “disturbances” to river ecosystems.” (State Lands Commission).

    The Colorado was a navigable river at statehood. It qualifies for public trust protection. And this includes the Salton basin.

    Thus the State owns a public trust easement in the area between the ordinary low water mark and high water mark, and the State has both the right and obligation to balance competing land uses in the easement between the low and high water marks of the Salton Sea for “…navigation, fisheries, commerce, environmental preservation and recreation; as ecological units for scientific stud, as open space; as environments which provide food and habitats for birds and marine life, and as environments which favorably affect the scenery and climate of the area (Ibid.)

    Currently, the State is doing a terrible job meeting its obligations, and it is falling farther and farther behind. The SSWIFT plan is not realistic and detracts from the variables so memorably defined above. It deserves to be shelved and forgotten.

    The playa must be kept wet. This means new water. The sea to sea does that, plus providing 100,000 acres of new habitat in Baja California. It also costs 1/3rd as much to build, plus provides a revenue stream to pay the bonds needed to build it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: