S.O.S: The Military and the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is home to a diverse group of people, but the two most controversial groups are the ones you don’t see. Evidence of both groups can be found at the infamous make-shift town of Slab City, which is home to retired snowbirds and squatters and a former home of the US Marine Corp. Slab City is built upon the former grounds of the abandoned WWII training site, Camp Dunlap. As highlighted by Denise Goolby in The Desert Sun, the Salton Sea has had a major military presence since WWII [1]. The US Navy is the biggest military force at the Sea, where the site has been used to train Naval airmen for decades. The Naval Air Facility El Centro and the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range are still active in the region with the Gunnery Range being one of the most important Navy and Marine training sites in the country due to its remote location and desert conditions similar to the Middle East [2]. Although the soldiers that train in the area are seldom seen, the guns and bombs used in training are easily heard in Slab City.

Sign that reads “Live Bombing Area” found at the East Jesus art sanctuary in Slab City.

Those familiar with the Salton Sea are aware of the impending public health disaster that could ensue from the drying Sea and fugitive dust, thus raising the question: How will fugitive dust impact military operations at the Salton Sea? Dust and sand are known to have a negative effect on military equipment; causing guns to jam if not properly cared for and jet engines to corrode, but those are risks in any desert operation [3]. And the history of deployment related pulmonary disease in soldiers exposed to desert dust storms is well known [4]. However, the military may not want to put its recruits unnecessarily at risk during training from continual exposure to Salton Sea dust. Remote, desert areas are in no short supply in western United States, so maybe the Navy and Marines can simply find a new location if a health threat at the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range becomes evident. But what about the bases in greater San Diego, such as Camp Pendleton, an important marine training facility, and the military bases throughout Southern California and Arizona that will feel the effects of the fugitive dust?

Map of military bases in Southern California. Obtained from militarybases.com

As of now there is no public knowledge of military involvement in Salton Sea restoration or of plans to close the gunnery range that will be the most at risk. However, Southern California is not the only place where military sites are threatened by the environment. Coastal military facilities across the world are threatened by the effects of climate change, such as the Norfolk Naval Station that experiences regular flood events and hurricanes [5]. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the National Intelligence Committee are responding to this threat and have released action plans and projections for the impact of climate change on infrastructure, national security, and military preparedness [6].

More heads have been turning toward the Salton Sea over the last year and the recent monetary commitments from Governor Brown ($80 million) and the federal government ($3 million) may help put plans into action. However, maybe the military can help us fight the war on fugitive dust using their hefty portion of the federal budget.

1. Many airmen lost their lives in the Salton Sea in WWII. Desert Sun at <http://www.desertsun.com&gt;.

2. California Military Bases | MilitaryBases.com. Military Bases at <http://militarybases.com/california/&gt;

3. “Desert Operations”. Field Manual No 90-3/Fleet Marine Force Manual No 7-27. Department of the Army. US Marine Corp. fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm90-3.pdf

4. Kreisher, Lindsey BA, RRT, RCP. The Pulmonary Impact of Recent Military Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. www.ncsrc.org.

5.Climate Change Adaptation: DOD Can Improve Infrastructure Planning and Processes to Better Account for Potential Impacts. at <http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-446>

6. National Security Implications of Climate Change. May 2015. <www.whitehouse.gov>.

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