LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — California’s largest lake didn’t even exist 120 years ago, but now it looms large over questions about how to manage the Colorado River.

Depending on who you ask, the Salton Sea is either an important wildlife ecosystem or an environmental disaster that’s ticking like a time bomb — 50% saltier than the Pacific Ocean and a major source of dust as water recedes.

The Salton Sea Authority, an organization created 30 years ago to work with the state of California to oversee comprehensive restoration of the lake, filed an 11-page response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to lend its voice to decisions about the future of the Colorado River.

Reclamation is working to build a new agreement as a set of rules from 2007 nears expiration. The agency has released a segment of the comments submitted by government agencies, tribes and environmental advocates, indicating that more will come “on a rolling basis.” So far, more than 700 pages of comments have been posted on Reclamation’s website. This is the fourth article in a series as 8 News Now looks at some of those comments.

The Salton Sea is shallow, averaging less than 30 feet deep. But it covers an enormous 318 square miles about 100 miles east of San Diego. At its deepest point, the lake is only 51 feet deep.

It collects runoff from California’s Imperial Valley farms, concentrating salt and chemicals from fertilizer. Water for all those farms comes from the All-American Canal from the Imperial Dam just north of Yuma, Arizona. A branch called the Coachella Canal carries the water north through Imperial County, feeding a $3.57 billion farming economy and supporting more than 22,000 jobs.

A sign is posted at the end of a road leading to the Salton Sea in Desert Shores, Calif., Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Salton Sea was born when irrigation canals from the Colorado River overflowed in 1905 sending water down the Alamo River channel and collecting 233 feet below sea level. It was two years to fix the massive diversion of water. Instead of evaporating and returning to a dry lakebed, the lake remained as runoff from farms in the region sustained it. Now, growing cities need more of that water, and there’s less that finds its way to the lake.

The result: a need for massive spending to prop up the ecosystem. As the salt content grows, fish that formerly thrived can no longer survive, which has in turn affected birds that rely on fish for food. The oxygen content of the water can also be affected by extremely high temperatures, leading to fish kills.

In 2022, $250 million in federal funds was earmarked for restoring the Salton Sea in a deal that secured a pledge to conserve 1.6 million acre feet of water between the years 2023 and 2026. That pledge came from the Imperial Irrigation District. An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three households for a year.

The lake is now a stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway, the great migratory route between Canada and South America.

The High Country News (HCN) reported in 2022 that rapid evaporation in recent years has exposed “a dry lakebed encrusted with a long list of contaminants — everything from arsenic to DDT.”

FILE – In this July 15, 2021, file photo Pelicans take flight in the Salton Sea on the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, in Calipatria, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

A 2014 report from the Pacific Institute cited in the HCN report estimates that failing to address the crisis could cost the area $70 billion in health care impacts, environmental damage and economic loss over the next three decades.

Communities surrounding the Salton Sea are primarily Latino and low-income, and devastating health effects have emerged. Among the biggest issues: respiratory problems including asthma. The Salton Sea Authority confirms the demographics, reporting minorities make up 85% of Imperial County, with more than one in five living below the poverty line. In its letter to Reclamation, the authority asserts federal responsibility to help.

Off-road vehicles are driven on the property that will be mined for lithium along the Salton Sea, in Niland, Calif., Thursday, July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Salton Sea Authority indicates that no previous environmental reviews have fully assessed impacts on the lake, suggesting that compliance with federal laws — the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act — changes the government’s obligations to fix problems.

The letter also cites obligations to “meet the requirements of President Biden’s environmental justice orders, including the president’s most recent command to agencies like Reclamation to ‘fully protect’ the disadvantaged communities in the Salton Sea region from the cumulative environmental and public health impacts of Reclamation’s proposed action.”

The authority adds, “It is also important to recognize that Salton Sea region disadvantaged communities suffer from significant additional environmental and public health hazards, including cross-border air pollution and New River raw sewage inflows from Mexico.”