Day 4: Salton Sea, Environmental Justice, Agriculture & Imperial Irrigation District

Red Hill Bay Marina:
Salton Sea: Ecological Dream, Economic Nightmare

While some version of the Salton Sea has existed for millennia, the current iteration was formed by an accident of engineering, when overflows from the Colorado River breached irrigation infrastructure in the big flood years of 1905-07. Fed by agricultural runoff, by mid-century the sea had become both a recreation hotspot and a crucial stopover for migrating birds - and is now also a promising prospect for geothermal projects. But with less water on the landscape, not only is the Salton Sea shrinking, it’s facing other challenges as well: increasing salinity and pollution, ever-dwindling habitat, and a dry lakebed releasing toxic dust that threatens the health of nearby residents. At the end of 2017, a 15-year agreement to deliver water to the Sea expired - with no solution in sight. Despite several options on the table - and California stuck holding the ball - neither funding nor answers are forthcoming.  

Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge
Shrinking Sea, Growing Problem: Neighboring Communities and Toxic Dust

 The Imperial Irrigation District is part of a multi-agency air quality monitoring and mitigation project to reduce hazardous playa dust. We heard from Comite Civico del Valle about citizen science, impacts of air pollution on local residents (especially kids), and efforts to both educate the public and find solutions to this ongoing problem.

Imperial, CA
Basin Behemoth: The Imperial Irrigation District

Holding the basin’s largest single entitlement to Colorado River water, the IID irrigates roughly 500,000 acres of farmland via the All-American Canal. It’s a $1 billion industry in a place that averages less than three inches of rain per year. We heard about how IID controls water, and what the future might hold.

Imperial Valley may be best known for keeping grocery stores across North America stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables all winter long, but among its 90-some crops, cattle and alfalfa are top dogs by dollar amounts. Carrots, lettuce, sugar beets, wheat, cantaloupe, Sudan grass, onions and asparagus round out the top 10. We took a windshield tour of some farms that are practicing on-farm and system-wide conservation measures. 

Imperial Dam

Straddling the Arizona-California border, the Imperial Dam is actually a vast series of structures that remove silt and sand from the Colorado River and divert the remaining water to California, Arizona and Mexico. We toured the dam and learned about how it works and where the water heads next.