SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - The Salton Sea is drying up and San Diego County’s thirst for water is partially to blame. Now, there’s a new plan to start restoring the state's largest lake.
It's been more than 50 years since fishermen and families flocked to the Salton Sea as a tourist destination.
The sea was created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River breached irrigation channels and flooded the desert basin, which sits below sea level.
The sand on the Salton Sea’s shoreline is toxic, polluted with chemicals and fertilizer from decades of irrigation runoff.
“It is imperative that we control the dust emissions off the Salton Sea. I don't think we can eliminate them, but you have to control them,” said Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy with California’s Natural Resources Agency.
Wilcox worries the Salton Sea could soon turn into a giant dust bowl with dust storms blowing toxic silt all the way to San Diego.
“It literally blinds you. It's like a snow storm. If it gets in your eyes it burns your eyes,” said Wilcox.
San Diego only has itself to blame for the shrinking Salton Sea.
In 2003, a portion of Colorado River water from Imperial Valley was diverted to San Diego County.
As part of the deal, area water districts agreed to pump extra water into the Salton Sea but that water source will dry up in 2017.
Even with adding 110,000 acre feet of water annually to the sea, plus all the agricultural runoff that flows from Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea still is dropping by close to a foot per year.
Members of the Bombay Beach Women's Club have heard all about efforts to restore the Salton Sea. They live in a decaying trailer town on the sea’s eastern shore.
“There's no way to save the Salton Sea unless they can somehow make marshlands and keep some water in the Salton Sea for the birds,” said Naomi Mead, a Bombay Beach Women’s Club member.
A new restoration plan would do just that.
The state wants to build a series of levies and then flood small sections of the shoreline with fresh water to reduce the dust and create wetland habitat.
“We can put it in areas like this and after we get done with it here we can discharge it to another series of pools and another series of pools,” said Wilcox as he sat on the shore of Red Hill Marina.
It's the first small step in a long-term effort to save the Salton Sea.
Groundbreaking is expected this year on three restoration projects in the Salton Sea but they are small and limited in scope.
Another plan is in the works to build more geothermal plants on the southern shore, which would help pay for larger restoration projects.