November 11, 2017

Photo Essay: The Shrinking Southern Tip of the Salton Sea

We call the Salton Sea a ghost town, but that's a misnomer—not only because the sea is so huge that its surrounding area is comprised of many towns, but also because it's still considered a significant recreation area by the State of California and wildlife habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the southern tip of the Salton Sea, there's the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge—perhaps an obvious choice of places to visit while you're visiting the salty sea, but it took me nearly 10 years to get there.

I guess I expected it to be nice there, which would be contrary to the narrative that had been unfolding before me—of a "poisonous playa" or a watery wasteland.

But even this federally-managed site is struggling, as its shoreline recedes and the habitat for a number of birds, fish, and invertebrates disappears.

For eons, the Salton Sea has been an important bird migration spot along the Pacific Flyway—but this year, the birds haven't been coming in droves as much as before, despite the five manmade "nursery islands" that were installed to provide a safe nesting place (and the freshwater that's pumped in).

Sure, you might see a Black Skimmer, eared grebe, or black-necked stilt here or there...

...but by and large, this prehistoric, otherworldly landscape is characterized more as a dry, rock desert that was once underwater but may never be again.

In 1987, Field & Stream called the Salton Sea "California's most productive fishery in terms of catch per angler hour," citing Rock Hill as one of the more popular fishing areas (despite toxic levels of selenium being found in all species of fish caught except tilapia).

Not so much anymore. But these 32,766 acres surrounding and including Rock Hill—a small, inactive volcano surrounded by obsidian—were set aside as a sanctuary and breeding ground for wildlife all the way back in 1930. The sea has shrunken since then. Its shores have morphed even since 1998, when the refuge was renamed in honor of 1960s pop star, Palm Springs mayor, and California congressman Sonny Bono.

Two rivers actually feed into this area—the New River and the Alamo River—but because the sea has no outlet, the freshwater just mixes with the salty sludge and the irrigation runoff from nearby farmland and then evaporates, leaving a trail of particulate matter and mineral dust in its wake. Hence the annual fish die-offs, as well as the zero-visibility dust storm I'd driven through the day before.

A stone's throw from Rock Hill is the aptly-named Red Hill, where county, state, and federal officials have already broken ground on a 420-acre restoration project to protect the bay and marina area as a shallow-water wetland habitat. But it's so dry there now, you can't even tell.

At 227 feet below sea level, this dry lakebed hasn't seen water in quite some time, though reportedly it was once hip-deep.

Even the summit of "Red Hill"—another volcano, which was once an island in the sea—is only about 100 feet higher than that, still below "sea level." As a result of the low elevation, you can experience a kind of reverse altitude sickness that results in hypoxia (lack of oxygen).

Campers still come here to spend the night, though, and rockhounds and gem and mineralists search for volcanic rock like pumice and volcanic glass like obsidian.

With all this volcanic activity (and a geothermal reservoir that's one of the world’s most potent), it's no wonder that there are so many geothermal power plants that operate in this region to convert the heat bubbling up from the ground into usable, clean, and sustainable energy.

That means much of the activity that's happening in the Red Hill area is underfoot. Even on a not-so-hot day, there's not much happening above ground at the nearby county park or the so-called marina.

The water that you see there is part of the Alamo River Delta, but the docks are sinking into the sink...

...the tethers no longer toil, with the lack of tides.

But an alien landscape isn't far beneath the rippled surface of the beleaguered sea, that salty, sulfuric lake that once had too much water and now doesn't have enough.

In fact, 2017 is the last year that irrigation waters will be diverted into the sea to mitigate the potential dust problem. Experts estimate that the Salton Sea will continue to shrink—even more quickly than before—in 2018.

And 10 years from now, the Salton Sea will consist of nearly 100 square miles of exposed dry lakebed.

Related Posts:
Retreading Old Ground
Leave No Trace
Photo Essay: Lost City of the Muddy Valley

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