Scoping of future research opportunities to reduce impacts of fugitive dust on Reclamation’s lands at the Salton Sea and understand impacts of a receding Salton Sea on the Colorado River basin

Project ID: 20043
Principal Investigator: Meghan Thiemann
Research Topic: Public and Employee Safety
Funded Fiscal Years: 2020
Keywords: None

Research Question

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded, destroyed a major canal under construction, and poured river water into the Salton sink for more than two years. The main recharge water for the Salton Sea (Sea) today comes from agricultural runoff from the Coachella and Imperial subareas. Bureau of Reclamation's (Reclamation) interest in the Sea is related to agricultural drainage from lands irrigated by Colorado River water. Reclamation owns approximately 90,000 acres of withdrawn land under and adjacent to the Sea. Reduced inflows and natural evaporation have resulted in a smaller Sea, increasing salinity and reducing habitat for birds and other native species, and increasing dust from exposed playa which negatively impacts local air quality. Since mitigation flows for agricultural to urban water transfers under the Quantification Settlement Act ended in December 2017, the Sea's decline is accelerating. The area has some of the worst air pollution in the country and Imperial County has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California. Because windblown dust poses significant health risks to residents in Imperial and Riverside Counties, the Department of Interior's (DOI's) Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. § 7401) responsibilities at the Sea may be significant should conditions worsen. Under the Clean Air Act, Reclamation may be required to provide a comprehensive inventory of actual emissions from all sources and implement a plan for reducing emissions using available control measures within specific and enforceable timeframes.

According to the Audubon Society, the Salton Sea is "one of the most important places for birds in North America" and "as the Sea changes, we will face losing a vital part of the Pacific Flyway and face a toxic dust bowl that will threaten public health for more than a million Californians." Hazard's Toll, a study report from the Pacific Institute, estimated that the cost for no action at th

Need and Benefit

Many proposals to restore the Salton Sea, particularly water import proposals, are dismissed due to environmental and economic issues associated with implementation. These issues should be further evaluated and compared to the costs associated with a receding Salton Sea, such as environmental, air quality, public health, and economic costs. There may be research opportunities for Reclamation that would facilitate solutions to restore the Salton Sea by better understanding impacts to the Colorado River basin and fugitive dust from Reclamation lands. Based on a draft report, a restored Salton Sea may prevent issues associated with reduced precipitation in the lower Colorado River basin. Reclamation research would be valuable to determining a best solution for restoration of the Salton Sea, which would have an impact on the Colorado River basin.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

Bureau of Reclamation Review

The following documents were reviewed by experts in fields relating to this project's study and findings. The results were determined to be achieved using valid means.

Scoping of future research opportunities to reduce impacts of fugitive dust on Reclamation’s lands at the Salton Sea and understand impacts of a receding Salton Sea on the Colorado River Basin (final, PDF, 644KB)
By Meghan Thiemann
Report completed on September 30, 2020

This research product summarizes the research results and potential application to Reclamation's mission.

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Last Updated: 6/22/20