(Palm Springs, CA) The Salton Sea is similar to the Chinese symbol for “crisis.” That symbol often translates as either a tremendous opportunity or a devastating disaster. Dr. Timothy Krantz envisioned those co-possibilities at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP) Renewable Energy Roundtable in November. Krantz, a professor of environmental studies from the University of Redlands and the Salton Sea Database Program, offered both the stark certainty facing the Coachella Valley with a undeniably shrinking sea, as well as a solution that transforms the sea into a renewable energy resource which brings hope and possibility along with alleviating the human health concerns of a changing sea.
First comes the bad news. While the issue of a dwindling Salton Sea has long been a topic, the time for talk is over. We can no longer say, “When the sea shrinks such and such will happen.” It has already begun. According to Krantz, the Salton Sea is currently loosing 20,000 acre-feet of water every year. Then, starting in 2017 the sea will lose another 300,000 square feet per year. What that means is that very soon 140 square miles of fine silt, sediment, minerals, chemicals and pesticides now covered by water will be dry land and exposed to desert winds if nothing changes. Charted wind patterns show primary flows up from the south to the northwest—blowing directly into the Coachella Valley Basin. Such airflows will, as Krantz says, “bury downwind communities.”
As an example of how bad it could get, Krantz uses the Owens Lake in central California. In the early 1900s, Owens Lake went dry after the Los Angeles Department of Water diverted the water for its own use. Much like the Salton Sea, its surface is made up from salt, clay, sand and minerals making is a “chemical soup”. When the periodic wind blows, a noxious alkali dust produces as much as 300,000 tons of windblown dust each and every year. To make matters worse, the dust is even smaller than the legendary PM10 currently here in the Coachella Valley. These micro-sized particles (10,000 of which can fit in a sugar cube), some of which are known carcinogens, are so small they can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and some go directly into the blood stream. Because of the severe health hazard created by a dry Owens Lake, the Owens Valley is rated as “the single largest source of fugitive dust in the United States,” and the second worst in the world to the Aral Sea, which is Kazakhstan’s infamous ecological nightmare. At the present time the US Environmental Agency has rated the Owens Valley Region as the worst air pollution in the nation, over six times greater than the second place candidate, the steel mills of Gary, Indiana.
Krantz says that the Coachella Valley region could be “four to five times worse.” What happens when a person breathes the chemical compound of a dry salty lakebed? Sensitive individuals like children, the elderly and anyone with respiratory problems, heart disease or influenza will be adversely affected. Eye and nasal irritation, headaches, breathing difficulties, asthma attacks and worse can be attributed. Again, a huge part of the problem is that the particles are so tiny that they can lodge deeply inside the lungs. It is estimated that the sediment of the Salton Sea could not only contain toxic materials like arsenic and cadmium found in Owens Lake, but with the pesticides and uranium run off, the Salton Sea “chemical soup” could be much more lethal.
What’s the good news? According to Krantz, although the Salton Sea is a potential health hazard, it could instead become a rich “energy mecca” or hub, for renewable energy. As such a resource, it could potentially generate enough renewable energy to maintain and operate the water resources that we need to mitigate the opposing health issues. The vision presented by Dr. Krantz to accomplish this goal is called “The Salton Sea Integrated Water Management Plan.” On the surface, this plan utilizes elements from all previous plans and maintains the north basin of the Salton Sea, utilizes a dike or dam near the center, creates a shallow bird habitat on the south end, and a brine discharge pool south of the dam.
What makes this new proposal stand out is that it offers a ways and means to finance the multi-billion dollar price tag while offering lucrative business opportunities to innovative sustainable companies. The Integrated Management Plan creates an “energy mecca” by utilizing four renewable energy sources that fit perfectly in the Salton Sea location.
#1 Geothermal Energy Field with the potential of 3-5 GW of electricity. (One GW is enough electricity for 1 million homes)
#2 Salinity Gradient Solar with the potential of 1 MW per 40 acres of solar ponds or 250 MW from 10,000 acres of Solar Ponds. Ponds of this type can be used to either create electricity or desalinate salt water.
#3 Solar Energy Generating Systems (or large scale solar farms) on ten square miles with the potential to generate approximately 4.3 GWs of power
$4 Biodiesel from Algae with the potential of 7-10 GB on 1,000 acres using vertical arrays.
To get the plan moving forward Dr. Krantz is speaking to a variety of different agencies and organizations around the southland. He is hoping to jump-start the work by raising an initial $50,000 to go into planning and then seeking longer term financing of several million for preliminary designs and engineering. “Meanwhile,”
When asked whether it as an all or nothing proposal, Dr. Krantz replied, “To do nothing is not an option. Even if we start planning efforts for an integrated water resources management and renewable energy development/
Dr. Krantz believes that air quality will deteriorate from San Diego to Phoenix. “In the meantime we need to get the word out to the affected community.” He adds, “A few significant dust storm events will underscore the seriousness of the problem for everyone.” Clearly, the impact of severely worsening air quality will touch everyone in the Coachella Valley from individual cities, property owners, business owners, residents and visitors and that dire economic potential should serve as motivation to start actions without delay.
Still, more than anything, this vision for seeing the Salton Sea as an energy mecca or a renewable energy resource offers a positive, sustainable approach rather than working solely to mitigate any health issues that happen after-the-fact as a result of an already dry lake bed. Not only would this project largely pay for itself, it additionally presents a solution that is not dependent upon any government to initiate or fund. Even further, it benefits our area with green job creation and more deeply establishes our region as a clean and green energy leader for the county. Finally, as Krantz says, “This is not just about fish and wildlife anymore. It is about human health and air quality in the Southwestern U.S.”
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