Most of the narratives about California’s drought focus on the state’s Central Valley, where the nonexistent snowpack from the Sierras is threatening the economic vitality of the region. But the other, lesser told story is playing out in the southeast corner of the state, where the lack of water is actually poisoning local residents.

In this week’s New Yorker, Dana Goodyear visits the Salton Sea, a massive man-made lake (the largest in the state) formed from an engineering accident in 1905. Its clear waters and desert climes once transformed it into a popular resort for LA’s elite. But two things happened in the last half-century: The Colorado River was diverted for local agriculture, leaving the lake to shrink. And the growing number of farms are sending their runoff of pesticides and fertilizers into the sea, turning it into a toxic pool. A drought, as you might imagine, is making the sea retreat even faster.

But the real problem is the dust:

The valley is eighty per cent Latino and mostly poor. It also has the state’s highest rate of asthma-related hospitalization for children. The Imperial Valley Child Asthma Program is the only free asthma-education program in the county, and it operates on an average budget of a hundred and forty-six thousand dollars a year. Fulton told me that in the past few years there has been an increase in referrals from the towns adjacent to the Salton Sea. (At one school, in the seaside town of Calipatria, sixty-five children are ill.) “We already have an unmet need,” she said. “What are we going to do when the Salton Sea dries out?” She is thinking of her clients, and she is thinking of herself. Her husband has asthma, her oldest daughter has asthma, and, after twenty-five years in the valley, she has it, too. “The issue of the sea is a bomb,” she said. “It’s a monster coming to get us all.”

Much has been written about the Salton Sea, and about the Colorado River, of course, but Goodyear’s thesis is quite persuasive. In a sense, the Salton Sea is a peek into the future: This is what will happen when the state runs dry.

[New Yorker]

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi