by David Turkes
Sustainability. It’s a widely used term with even broader definitions, meanings and approaches. In an age where science and politics are increasingly intertwined, it’s critical that we realize the world is ever-changing. Sustainability is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, it’s a culmination of many things – unique to individuals, regions, businesses, and more – each essential to building and ensuring a more responsible future. That’s our shared goal. Achieving it requires all of us to do our part: reflect on past decisions, seek out new innovations and recognize the needs of tomorrow.
An Agricultural – and Tourism – Dream
California’s Salton Sea tells a staggering story – a moment in history that reveals a stark realization of how sustainability changes over time. It’s hard to believe: the state’s largest body of water – 378 square miles – resides approximately 150 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Southern California. The sea (a lake, actually), was created by accident in 1905 and eventually became an agricultural and tourist hot spot in the early and mid-1900s. However, time has not been kind to the Salton Sea. Manmade activities brought about its creation while nature had other plans.
A massive influx of water diverted from the Colorado River flooded the valley, which is already 226 feet below sea level. The original intent was to fill irrigation canals for agriculture. The vast availability of fresh water in the desert became an oasis-like atmosphere. It also presented the perfect opportunity for growth and expansion. The problem quickly became how to use the water effectively and responsibly. The Salton Sea offered enormous potential for improving the quality of life. What happened over the next 50 years turned out to be the exact opposite.
How do you handle such a large amount of water with no outlet? You shut it off at the source. Eventually, the canal supplying fresh water to the Salton Sea was cut off. Farms utilized the water and the surrounding geography sent it right back to where it came. This created problems that would compound for decades. Fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals found their way in. And because its waters never discharge and just seep into the ground or evaporate, the salinity level became high and kept rising as the years rolled on. Numerous health hazards and warnings were issued. Due to rising temperatures, large parts of the lake dried up, leading to dust storms. Tourism followed shortly thereafter. What was once the next gem of the west became one of the greatest environmental failures in California’s history.
An Ecological Nightmare
Fast forward to today. We’re dealing with these issues in alarming ways. The Salton Sea and its surrounding area is extremely toxic. Yet, its fixes come with a hefty price tag. A plan has been discussed to connect this sea with the Sea of Cortez down in Mexico – a temporary, stop-gap fix that would cost tens of billions of dollars. This proposition, financially and politically, is an intensifying undertaking.
But there is a silver lining. California state environmental regulations are becoming increasingly rigorous and should prevent eco-disasters like the Salton Sea from happening again. California continues to push the ecological envelope, boasting some of the most stringent regulations in the world. However, we must find a way to share our experiences and findings with other states and countries. Humans will continue to impact all areas of our planet. While we know the former will always be true, we must acknowledge that today’s decisions will have ramifications tomorrow. And if we do, we may still have a shot at saving the Salton Sea and other areas like it for future generations.