Can the Salton Sea, which is fast disappearing, be saved?

You've probably seen a lot of news about California's drought lately.

It's not just your water bill you should be concerned about. Scientists agree the Salton Sea is drying up, evaporating by as much as six feet a year. They fear that by 2017 the area will be prone to dust bowls that could be harmful from years of toxic waste and pollution in the water. Now, they're racing to find a solution.

"I've been coming out here since I was 5 years old to visit my grandparents," said a man who calls himself Bucky.

Bucky has lived on the edge of the Salton Sea in the community of Bombay Beach for over 20 years.

"It was beautiful when we first moved here; it was wonderful," Bucky added as he looked around what now looks more like wasteland.

"You could never find a place on the beach to park," Bucky said while remembering the heyday of the Salton Sea. "There would be five rows of campers constantly; every place you could rent in town was rented. Now it makes me sick to even pull into this town."

The Salton Sea is California's largest body of water. Sometimes it displays unrivaled beauty. But on closer inspection the nickname "California's Dead Sea" is more appropriate. It's far from what was envisioned decades ago when developers called it the "Miracle in the Desert" and had plans to turn the surrounding beaches into a California Riviera.

Now, the Salton Sea is drying up rapidly and has become a dumping ground for toxic runoff from surrounding farms. That, and years of pollution, have killed millions of fish and birds who migrate through the area. The desolated communities of people are not far behind. Property values for residents who live there, like Bucky, are worth almost nothing.

"We own two houses," said Bucky, clearly frustrated. "We can't replace what we have into them. Me and my wife just talked about it a couple of weeks ago. I said, 'You know, we're going to die here.' We're going to die here because we can't get out of these two houses and we can't get off the beach."

The paradise that once was the Salton Sea is now gone and it's only getting worse. As the sea continues to dry up and evaporate, scientists are concerned that the dust left behind is full of harmful elements and can be a big danger when it blows in the dry winds.

But they also say there's a solution.

Just a few miles from the Salton Sea is the Earthrise Algae Farm. The arid climate in the desert is perfect for growing and harvesting the algae, which can then be processed to use for food and even fuel. 10News asked Earthrise scientist Amha Belay about the algae's potential to help revive the economy there and possibly mitigate the environmental problems with the Salton Sea.

"The potential is very high because of the very high growth rate," said Belay.

Unlike the surrounding agricultural farms, nearby scientists have shown the algae ponds take up less space, produce year-round and use less water. They propose placing more algae ponds on the dry beaches of the Salton Sea to not only prevent the toxic dust bowls they predict in the years to come but also to create jobs.

Dr. Stephen Mayfield, a biologist at UC San Diego and the Director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, explains a proposal from the science community.

"We can actually put a pond on top of it that will produce fuel that we can now sell," said Mayfield. "So we mitigate the environmental damage, we create a product that we need for the state of California anyway and its low carbon fuel. It would literally be a win, win, win situation."

That proposal is gaining steam. State Sen. Ben Hueso is exploring options through a study and restoration plan for the Salton Sea. His goal is to revitalize the economy there and once again restore the Sea as a tourist destination. His only concern is that time is running out.

"We know what happens when a dust bowl happens in a community. It kills people and it kills the economy as well," said Hueso.

"The Sea isn't waiting. It's receding," Mayfield is quick to add. "So politics may be slow and now the environment is outstripping the rate of that. So because of that it's really put some urgency I think up here."

For those who live near the Salton Sea the fear is that any solution will be too late.

"I ain't going to see it in my time," said Bucky as he begins to walk away. "Me and my wife know we're not going to see it in our time."

Print this article Back to Top