EngbergLive or Let Die.” No, it’s not a Paul McCartney song or a James Bond movie. The Salton Sea in Southern California is faced with these choices.

In the two previous parts of this series I’ve discussed how the Salton Sea came into existence and summarized discussions in 1995 about how to save it.  Twenty years later the discussions are more about whether to save it, in other words, should it remain in existence or ultimately vanish. 

Traditionally, since an agreement was signed in 1922 among the Colorado River states allotting a portion of the Colorado River water to each state, the Imperial Valley in California received 70 percent of the California allotment annually.  Return flow from irrigated fields in the Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea slowed the Sea’s evaporation but carried toxic chemicals to the Sea.  The Sea continues to shrink in size and become more saline and the exposed seabed contains these toxic materials.

In 2003, an agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District, the City of San Diego and the Coachella Valley provided a temporary reprieve for the Sea.  The Irrigation District agreed to quit farming 50,000 acres and ship the water that would have been used to irrigate those acres to San Diego and to the Coachella Valley for residential usage. In return, those urban areas agreed to pay for water conservation efforts such as canal lining and drip irrigation for remaining agriculture in the Imperial Valley.  Because it would not be receiving runoff from the acreage taken out of production, the agreement called for 32 billion gallons of water each year to be piped to the Salton Sea.   However, this transfer of water to the Sea is scheduled to end in 2017.  Then what?

The solution to saving the Sea is enough water to insure that water levels do not decline further.  But where would more water come from?  Presently, there is not enough water to go around in Southern California.

For some, the ideas discussed in Part 2 of this series to save the Sea are still under consideration.  Build a 100-mile long canal to bring water from the Sea of Cortez to the Salton Sea.  Some local residents feel this is doable but state and federal officials do not.

For others, building dikes to maintain a smaller Sea would save the fish and provide for the migratory birds usage of the Sea would save part of the sea.  Once again, who would pay and would it be sustainable for the long term?  Where would the water come from to maintain a consistent water level in the Sea?

If nothing is done, a reasonable estimate is that the Sea water level will decline by 20 feet in the 15 years following 2017 dramatically increasing the salinity of the remaining water.  This will doom the already stressed fish population.  Then, of course, there is the problem of exposed fine-grained toxic sediments that dry and are scattered by wind.  This could be an increasing health problem for residents of Southern California. 

Presently the Sea is slowly dying.  Who wants to save it?  Environmentalists concerned about the fish and birds and some but not all the local populace.  The rest of the country really could care less.  Can it be saved?  I don’t know the answer.  Should it be saved?  I don’t know that answer either.  Ultimately, will it be saved?  I can sum up my answer to that question in three words, I doubt it.