Friday April 21, 2023


Wedged between two vast stretches of farmland in Southern California, the Salton Sea doesn’t seem habitable. It smells foul, like rotting eggs. The shore is crusted with salt and littered with tires and old glass bottles. And the only water flowing into it is runoff from farmland. The Salton Sea is literally fed by wastewater.

Yet here in the desert, the sea is a haven for birds. Roughly 270 avian species regularly use the lake — the largest in the state — including white and brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and snowy plovers. In past decades, for example, winter would draw millions of eared grebes, migratory waterbirds with piercing red eyes and golden feathers that fan out from their cheeks. The lake is something of a birder’s paradise.

But like many of the United States’s important wildlife habitats, the Salton Sea is shrinking. Evaporation is outpacing the inflows of water running off from farms, causing the lake to recede and turning it incredibly salty. There’s so much salt now that few fish and other aquatic critters can survive, which means fish-eating birds like pelicans are vanishing, according to Robert McKernan, a retired ornithologist who’s been studying the sea since the ’70s.

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