Bringing Death Valley to Life as a Marine Natural Resource
There are a great many worlds to explore in nearby mud puddles and under rocks at the beach. With microscopes we can see microbe worlds and silicon sand grains that power computers and smartphones. With telescopes we can survey the surface of Mars, and from airplane windows at 30,000 feet we can see what looks like similarly desolate martian landscapes.
Worlds in space can be warmed with blankets of carbon dioxide and water vapor, and can support life with melted ice (more on martian terraforming here). Water supports life across a wide range of landscapes and temperatures, from Mars to the Mojave Desert to Death Valley and the Salton Sea. A trench of California desert became the Salton Sea after a levee break in 1905. This accidental sea expanded to 45 miles by 17 miles and 83 feet deep (Audubon Society page). It’s no accident the Audubon Society profiles the Salton Sea. Millions of birds began arriving as soon as the water settled. Floods have occurred in this region over thousands of years, and a long-term sea went dry just 500 years ago.
By 1960, Salton Sea had developed into a resort with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore. Several multi-million dollar marinas and yacht clubs sprung up around the shoreline. Golf courses began to appear everywhere. Thousands showed up to watch the Salton Sea 500, a 500 mile powerboat endurance race. (Amusing Planet page, with links to resorts.)
If engineers can make an inland sea out of a California desert by accident, inland seas can also be made on purpose. Why not redirect more life-giving water to the deserts of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico? The birds will thank us and the Audubon Society would cheer (or should cheer).
Terraforming is more than just a world-changing idea for Mars. Reason‘s Ronald Bailey discusses the debate over terraforming Mars in “Does Mars Have Rights?” Environmental developers could work on less-expensive terraforming of desolate places on planet Earth.
Flying from San Antonio to Los Angeles recently, I looked out across 1,400 miles of mostly dry landscapes. Google says the route would take 449 hours by foot (though it seems like a long way for 40 days walking 12 hours a day). By air the dry landscape was crossed in a few rapt hours. Out the window were endless vistas of rough lands with little life. Yet water would transform this stretch into one of the most prosperous and ecologically rich places on Earth.
Does this desolation have rights? Well, owners of the property do, or would if the land had owners. Instead, most of the land across the deserts east of Los Angeles and San Diego are still in the hands (or under the thumbs) of federal government agencies. The various government agencies involved are listed by color and shown on the maps below.
You can see these maps of federal lands in high resolution at nationalatlas.gov.
The first map is southern California and below that is southern Arizona. Lots of vibrant colors mark the land on these maps, but without water the actual land is mostly barren brown.
This December 7, 2013 Los Angeles Times article reports on plans government agencies have to save the Salton Sea.
With an ominous deadline approaching, two feuding Imperial Valley agencies have put aside their differences and developed a plan they hope can save the ailing Salton Sea, the state’s largest body of water and often considered its most vexing environmental problem. The Imperial Irrigation District and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors have agreed to push for additional geothermal energy exploration on the eastern edge of the sea. (Source)
Below from Google Maps is the Salton Sea with Palm Desert and Palm Springs to the northwest, deserts to the east and west, and the Imperial Valley to the south. The Audubon Society page linked above says agricultural runoff caused much of the pollution damage to the Salton Sea. And to this pollution cost we can add millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies that fund billions of gallons of fresh water each year to grow alfalfa that’s sent to feed cows in China.
Alfalfa is a water-guzzling crop and the water embedded in the alfalfa that the U.S. will export to China in 2012 is enough to supply the annual needs of roughly 500,000 families.
Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District gets its water from the Colorado River, 82 miles to the east. Alfalfa farmers in the district use as much as 50% more water than growers in other areas of the state due to scorching heat, salty soil and, perhaps most important, their legal rights to an enormous quantity of cheap water. This single irrigation district controls more than 20% of the total annual flow of the Colorado River. Remarkably, the district’s water rights are 10 times higher than that of the entire state of Nevada.
The perversity of a situation in which California taxpayers must spend tens of billions to protect the water supplies of vital farms and cities even as California farmers convert tens of thousands of irrigated acres to feed cows in China reflects the growing incoherence of domestic water and agricultural policy. Antiquated Western water laws often block intrastate or interstate water transfers that could satisfy changing domestic urban, agricultural and environmental needs.
The Salton Sea, located south of the famous Death Valley in the desert region of Southern California, is over 200 feet below sea level. The United States could provide unlimited water to the southwestern deserts if the federal government would build a canal between the Pacific Ocean and the Salton Sea. (Source)
An alternative to a canal from the Gulf of California would be an aqueduct directly from the Pacific Ocean near the city of San Diego. The water could be pumped up to a storage reservoir in the Laguna Mountains. Then the gravity potential of the reservoir could serve as a pumped hydro storage facility for peak time electricity generation. San Diego County could receive as much as 500 mega-watts of peak time electrical power from the facility. During low electricity demand periods late at night, cheap electricity would be used to pump ocean water from the Pacific up to the Laguna reservoir. Then, during the peak-time hours of the day, the stored ocean water would be released from the reservoir and allowed to flow through a pipe down to the Anza-Borrego Desert floor, located on the east side of the Laguna Mountains, where the force of the water pressure would turn a conventional hydro-electric generator. Then, after the sea water is released from the hydro-electric water turbine it would flow through an open canal to the Salton Sea, which is at a lower elevation than the Anza-Borrego Desert floor. (Source)
Maybe giant tunnels under the mountains would be less expensive that pumping water over. Tunneling is less expensive than they used to be (except in Seattle).
Would such a project taking water over, under, or through the mountains require lots of government funding? No, just lots of freedom from government regulations. The federal government could make money the old-fashion way, selling land to settlers and developers, just as it did before federal fingers got sticky in the early 1900s.
Market-reforms for federal lands are discussed in the papers from this 2010 PERC program, “New Frontiers in Western Land Institutions.” I doubt any of the papers discuss flooding Death Valley directly, but private ownership and markets would generate incentives more likely to attract the billions of investment dollars to expand marine natural resources across vast southwestern deserts.
Interested adventurers can read more tales of shipwrecked galleons full of Spanish doubloons said to be now buried deep in the sands around an lost inland stretch of the Gulf of California.
It seems that hundreds of years ago, when the waters of the Gulf of California came up into the desert, a pirate ship sailed up the Gulf. It was caught in some cross currents and went aground on a sand bar. The crew died, and the ship was left stranded there with almost a million doubloons and pieces of eight in her hulk. It’s only when the wind blows and the sand clears that you can get a good look at her, and then the same wind comes along and covers her up again. The Star locates the wreck about ten miles from Dos Palmas. The newspaper gives a graphic description of the time when the Gulf occupied the entire valley, and, in fact, connected up with the Pacific Ocean through San Gorgonio Pass and Los Angeles. The Star did a series of articles speculating that the ship might have been one of the units of King Solomon’s navy, or the craft that carried the ten lost tribes of Israel to America; and for the latter offered proof that the tribes never reached America but died of diptheria in the Sandwich Islands! Another idea advanced was that a war-like people from the Indian Sea took a tempestuous voyage to the Gulf of California. Here their ship, Bully Boy, sank in treacherous quicksands. Her hull was made of teakwood and did not rot. The Digger Indians of California are descendants of this Shoo-fly tribe. (from Chapter 2: Lost Ships of the Desert in The Salton Sea: California’s Overlooked Treasure)
And, more historical adventure:
Subsequently, a boy named Manquerna, from Sinaloa, said dig in 1774 he was taken by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza as a mule-driver on the exploring trip from Sonora to the California coast. When they started crossing the desert westward from the Colorado River, he was sent out to the right of the course traveled by the main body of explorers, to seek a different route. While he was traveling at night to avoid the heat, he stumbled upon an ancient ship, and in its hold were so many pearls that they were beyond imagination. He took what he could carry, deserted de Anza, and finally reached the Mission of San Luis Rey. Later, he spent many years trying to find the ship again.
Chapter 1 in this online book describes two early Salton Sea proposals, The Wozencraft Plan and The Widney Sea, both to divert the Colorado river to fill lakes and provide irrigation to California lands only occasionally flooded by the Colorado.