MEMO: Colorado River Negotiations, Army Corps Planning Must Consider Full Impacts on Salton Sea


Ian Brickey, Senior Press Secretary, Sierra Club,

Jason Howe, Media Relations Manager, National Audubon Society

Barrett Newkirk, Communications and Public Relations Manager, Alianza Coachella Valley,

Lesly Figueroa, Communication Manager, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability,

The next few weeks could be decisive for the future of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. The Army Corps of Engineers is analyzing plans that will shape the next ten years of projects designed to avert the environmental catastrophe at the Sea. At the same time, negotiations among Western states on the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River could severely affect replenishment to the Salton Sea region from its largest historical source of water. The longstanding environmental, economic, and public health problems affecting the Salton Sea because of its dropping water levels are accelerating due to a combination of climate change, changing water use patterns, decades-long delays to projects critical for restoring the Sea, and underinvestment in local infrastructure, harming the communities and wildlife that call the area home. 

California’s largest lake is on track for an environmental and public health disaster

  • The Salton Sea and the communities that surround it are facing an environmental disaster due to rapidly dropping water levels.

  • The declining water supply is causing a major rise in salinity levels and agricultural runoff concentration, making the sea inhospitable for the people and wildlife who call the area home.

  • The dropping water level is also compromising habitat for over 300 species of birds that rely on the Sea as a stopover, or for breeding, as part of the Pacific Flyway

  • Exposed lakebed (called playa) emits contaminated dust that is dangerous for communities around the sea, causing asthma attacks, bronchitis, and lung diseases.

Regional efforts to save the waters of the Colorado River could dry up the Salton Sea

  • The Salton Sea relies on runoff from agriculture in the Imperial Valley, which gets its water supply from the Colorado River.

  • The Colorado River basin is in the midst of a 23-year megadrought exacerbated by climate change.

  • This drought is shrinking the amount of water available to the agricultural industries, utilities, wildlife, and millions of people who rely on the river to survive.

  • Current negotiations around water allocations from the river would provide lower levels for Imperial Valley agriculture, meaning even less runoff into the Salton Sea, making it shrink even faster.

This could seriously affect the health and livelihoods of communities around the Sea

  • More than 12,000 people live in communities directly around the Salton Sea, with more than 650,000 in the larger air basin

  • Many communities living in rural areas around the Sea experience higher levels of poverty and unemployment, substandard housing and public infrastructure, lack of access to health care, and exposure to environmental hazards

  • The air quality in the Salton Sea Air Basin does not meet state or federal standards for particulate matter and ground level ozone. The continued evaporation at the Sea causes lake levels to recede, leading to increased exposure of contaminated playa and concentration of fertilizers, sulfides, metals, pesticides, and other salts in existing water.

  • Public health impacts for communities living around the Sea include increased prevalence of  chronic conditions such as cardiac disease, diabetes, asthma, respiratory illnesses, and mortality in adults and more frequent occurrence of acute conditions such as nausea, nose bleeds, and allergy symptoms, as well as diminished lung function development in children.

Regional and Federal governments and agencies must act now to avert this disaster

  • Western states are engaged in negotiations to determine water use allocations from the Colorado River, the main source of water replenishment for the Salton Sea.

  • Those negotiations must consider the impacts on the Salton Sea ecosystem and on surrounding communities; the future of the people and wildlife depend on it.

  • The state’s Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP) lags far behind in its commitments for Sea restoration projects like mandated dust suppression and habitat rehabilitation.

  • The Army Corps of Engineers must greenlight long-delayed projects to improve the ecological situation at the Salton Sea for the benefit of local wildlife and communities. 

  • Moreover, the state still lacks a detailed strategy to build partnerships with the local communities around the Salton Sea that help shape the implementation, success, and benefits of all restoration projects to include elements that go far beyond offering outdoor access to local residents, and also include elements that promote climate resiliency and community building.

About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit