The Salton Sea: an opportunity for raising environmental awareness

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As California’s drought enters its fourth year, further environmental issues should be more publicized. Whether it’s the 12 million trees that have quickly died or the families relying on water bottles for daily necessities, the drought has exacerbated issues up and down the Golden State. However, in sunny Southern California, we don’t seem to be as personally affected by these issues, other than higher water rates on our monthly water bill. “Seem” is used rather loosely here. We are affected by numerous environmental issues all the time (this is a signal for a collective “duh”), yet said issues are not discussed often enough in the media — even when they have the potential to cause cancerous dust storms, a phenomenon that sounds fitting for a terrible sci-fi story. We wish that last bit was more fiction than fact, but it can’t be denied. The current situation regarding the Salton Sea is just one of the environmental issues that UCR students should know about. Ultimately, it serves as a symbol that emphasizes why environmental issues necessitate attention before the issues brew over.

Imagine a beautiful town, primarily run for leisure with lake houses and entertainment facilities dotting the coast of an accidentally made, yet beautiful lake brimming with aquatic life. Now rid the imagination from your head and face the current reality of the Salton Sea. Since it was created by an unintentional water burst from an irrigation canal in 1905, the Salton Sea has slowly evaporated due to the drought and the ceasing of runoff (and pesticides, don’t forget those) from nearby agricultural areas,  which replenished the body of water yearly. After the lake’s caretaker, Imperial Irrigation District, brokered a deal to sell its water to San Diego, California’s largest lake has quickly evaporated, revealing the pesticides laced within and growing increasingly saline. A casual stroll along the lakebed will provide a sight of eerie colors and dead tilapia. However, what’s truly a cause of worry about this toxic mess is its potential to become a “giant dust bowl with dust storms blowing poisonous silt.” Not only does this pose a health risk to all in Southern California, but already, cases of respiratory conditions in the Coachella Valley are “four times the national average.”

As neighbors to Imperial Country (where the lake resides), Riverside will be affected sooner than others, yet not all are worried or are even aware of the dangers that loom. As the Salton Sea is occupied mostly by low-income residents, the critical attention the environmental issue necessitates has been hard to generate due to the lack of resources the residents have at hand, especially in contrast to affluent areas (whose interests are met quicker).

This is why UCR can step up and help.

UCR graduate students have begun to do so via the “Salton Sea Sense,” a Spanish and English-written blog accessible to all that details the issues in hopes of raising awareness about the Salton Sea. However, as a university, UCR and students can contribute in some form or fashion toward increasing awareness or contributing solutions.

Beyond social media (though it has great power in furthering social movements), UCR can be more active. With the heavy research basis of this university, many science courses can conduct field trips out to the Salton Sea to observe and sample the area. As Drew Story, a graduate student in chemical and environmental engineering, stated “the Salton Sea is truly an interdisciplinary issue.” It can be studied not only by environmental science majors, but others as well, furthering awareness of the issue to a younger generation who can advocate for policy change (as the Salton Sea also demonstrates poor planning and lack of governmental intervention over industry). A task force backed by a university professor can bring about possible initiatives or solutions to be considered in academics or policy-making. Even if these solutions may vary from saving to draining the Salton Sea, all would bring more attention to an issue that has been ignored long enough.

The University of California system was created and maintained to support its local community. Specifically, UCR’s mission states that it “serves the needs and enhances the quality of life of the diverse people of California.” It’s only right that UCR and its students take the initiative to be more active in terms of their communities’ environments, starting with the Salton Sea.

 

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