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From Palm Springs to the Salton Sea – Hiking, Birding and Climate Change


…in which I describe some of our favourite hiking and bird-watching spots in and around the Coachella Valley and muse about the future of the Salton Sea with and without the help of Climate Change.

In and Around Palm Springs

We spent an extra-long weekend recently vacationing in the Palm Springs area, a place we’ve been to from time to time since we discovered it while living the greater Los Angeles area a few years back.  As we are presently living in British Columbia we have an added appreciation of the warmth in the wintertime.  Now, we don’t go there to golf or to sit pool-side and get a tan.  What we do like about the area are all the interesting places to hike and look for wildlife – mostly birds.

In Palm Springs and the surrounding communities, the heavy use of water for lawns, pools and various kinds of plant-life provides a good habitat for birds that, in many cases, would never be found in the desert.  Despite all the development there are still many interesting natural places to hike and look for wildlife in the area.  Some of our favorites are listed below:

  • Joshua Tree National Park is quite large and has extensive hiking trails at all difficulty levels.  It is also popular with rock-climbers.  We saw our first Gambel’s QuailScott’s Oriole and Ladder-backed Woodpecker in different parks of the park.
  • The Palms to Pines Scenic Byway which takes you in a loop from desert to pine forests and back up into the San Jacinto mountains south of Palm Springs.  There are lots of places to hike and look for wildlife along the way.  Idyllwild is roughly half way around the loop and a good place to stop for lunch.
  • The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in Morongo Valley with its marsh and numerous trails is a good place to hike and, depending on the time of year, a favorite for bird-watching groups from all over Southern California.  We had our first sightings of the Vermillion Flycatcher (a gorgeous male) and the tiny but distinctive Calliope Hummingbird here within a few meters of the main parking lot.  One of our visits also treated us to a display of two Virginia Rails, usually quite furtive, chasing each other around a section of the marsh.
  • The Living Desert is Zoo, Botanical Garden and other stuff all bundled together.  A fun place to spend a half-day and a magnet for a number of bird species.  We saw our first Verdin and Costa’s Hummingbird here though both are quite common around the valley.  There’s a very cool and quite large model train exhibit too.
  • The Indian Canyons is close to Palm Springs and has extensive hiking trails.
  • The Thousand Palms Oasis is close to the Palm Springs area just a few minutes off of Interstate 10 using the Ramon exit.  This is a nice place to visit if you only have a couple of hours.  Our favorite walk is the McCallum Trail, a short desert hike between two oases.  There are typically lots of birds and, unfortunately, lots of places for them to hide from view.

The California Watchable Wildlife site has a good summary page for hiking and wildlife viewing in the Palm Springs area.

On to the Salton Sea

This was the first time that we visited the Salton Sea at the south end of the Coachella Valley though we only made it to the Salton Sea State Recreational Area along the North-East edge of the lake.  The wetlands further south will have to wait until next time.

The shore was lined with gulls and shorebirds attracted, in part, by the good supply of fish in the sea – mostly tilapia, a tropical species and one of the few left in the lake due to its high level of salinity.  A recent cool spell had actually caused a significant die-off leaving large areas of the shoreline covered in dead fish.  Luckily, the cool weather kept the smell down (we’ve heard that the lake can be quite stinky at various times of the year).

Winter time is not the best time of the year for birds here though we did see one new species that we had never seen before – the Abert’s Towhee – a large species of sparrow at the western edge of its range.  We were also somewhat surprised to see 5 Sora within a few yards of each other.  The Sora, though common, is a marsh dweller that is normally quite furtive and whenever we have seen them in the past it was always one at a time.

It was a productive, if short, first trip to the Salton Sea.

Some Salton Sea History

Following my visit, I decided to find out more about the Salton Sea, its importance for wildlife and what the future might have in store with and without the effects of climate change.  Here is a summary of what I think are some of the more interesting bits (I provide links for those wanting more detail).

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California and one of the best places to see birds in the southern part of the state, particularly during spring and fall migration.

The surface of the sea is almost 230 feet below sea level.  If you look at a topographic map you will see that the Salton Sea sits at the north end of the rift forming the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez to some).  A long time ago the Salton basin, sometimes referred to as the Salton Sink, was cut off from the rest of the gulf by an alluvial plain created by silt from the Colorado River.  The subsequent history of the basin was one of intermittent filling and drying up as the flow of the Colorado River changed.

The most recent filling occurred when a levy broke along the Colorado River in 1905 which led to the creation of the sea over a period of a year and a half until the original river flow was restored.  Since then the inflow from agricultural irrigation runoff has kept the sea from disappearing.  With no output, the sea is currently 25% saltier than the ocean which has caused many of the previously introduced fish species to disappear – and it is getting saltier every year so that it is only a matter of time until it can no longer support any fish species at all.  Worse yet, with the heavy demand for water in the American Southwest, the sea may yet disappear altogether from diminished agricultural runoff if nothing is done to stabilize it.

So why should we care if the sea dries up?  After all, the Salton Sea has been dry many times before.

One reason is that the sea represents an important stop along the “pacific flyway”, the migration route followed by millions of birds each year.  More than 90% of California’s wetlands that once formed part of this flyway have disappeared as a result of human development – much of that since the formation of the Salton Sea.  If the sea disappears, the effect on bird migration may be significant as many of the alternate stopping points that once existed no longer do.

A second reason is that if the sea dries up, the resulting dry lake bed is expected to cause serious air-quality problems as strong winds send clouds of aerosolized salt and dust into surrounding areas.  To understand what the consequences of a dried up Salton Sea might be, consider the legacy of Owens Lake which lies about 200 miles due north of Los Angeles and along the eastern edge of the Serra Nevadas, between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley.  In 1913 the water that normally flowed into the lake was diverted to supply Los Angeles and within 15 years the lake was dry.  Today, Los Angeles County is still suffering the consequences of this water diversion as the 2011 essay Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake by Karen Piper poignantly describes.  In draining the lake, they have, decades later, run afoul of both EPA air quality regulations and the North American Migratory Birds Treaty Act.

If you are interested in additional information on Owen’s Lake I would recommend reading the articles: Owens (Dry) Lake, California: A Human-Induced Dust Problem from the USGS and Owens Lake by the non-profit Owens Valley Committee.

For more information on the Salton Sea, see the The Salton Sea Story…so far, a position paper by the Buena Vista Audubon Society (representing north-eastern San Diego County).  Another excellent read is the 2005 National Geographic article on the Salton Sea (make sure to follow the link to the full article).  Finally, on a somewhat unrelated note, you might find the 2011 article Flooding of Ancient Salton Sea Linked to San Andreas Earthquakes from ScienceDaily interesting.

So, What’s in Store for the Salton Sea?

In 2003, an agreement was made between the state of California, 4 water districts and some environmental groups that redistributed a large chunk of the Colorado River water rights in southern California.  For the Salton Sea this meant less inflow from surrounding agricultural areas that had lost some of their irrigation water.  As part of the deal, the state of California assumed the responsibility for mitigating environmental damage which has resulted in the development of a Salton Sea restoration plan which appears to be still in the approval phase.

Restoration looks like it will be expensive too – one estimate I have seen was for about $7-billion.  I guess that it should not be surprising that this project would be expensive since the plan is in effect fighting Nature.  If left alone without the agricultural runoff inflow, the Salton Sea would probably have disappeared years ago with much less of a salt-dust problem.

With large budget deficits at both the state and federal level, I can imagine that there will be significant resistance to such an expenditure so whether or not the Salton Sea will ever be truly stabilized is not clear.

I wonder how many wetlands could be restored elsewhere in California for $7 billion?

The Salton Sea with Climate Change

I have to admit that the future of the Salton Sea looks gloomy, even without climate change.  Climate change is expected to make the climate in the southwest of the US both warmer and drier meaning less inflow and higher evaporation rates making stabilization even more difficult.

Climate change, however, may be the ultimate savior for the Sea.  One of my favorite climate change tools on the web is the interactive Sea Level Rise Explorer.  I grabbed an image from this tool showing the elevation above sea level for areas between the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California.  You can see that a rise in sea level of about 10 meters would be enough for the Salton Sea to rejoin the Gulf of California.

How long will it take for sea levels to rise 10 meters or more?  Looking at different sources of information shows significant uncertainty, however, it is interesting to note that the Dutch are planning for 2 to 4 meters of sea level rise by the year 2200 (see this NY Times article) in their plans for protecting their country from raising seal levels.  At these rates it will take 5 to 10 centuries before the ocean starts to fill the Salton Sea.  Given the apparent global political disinterest in dealing with climate change, it seems almost certain that it is only a matter of time until the Gulf of California reclaims its long-lost Salton basin.

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