Salton Sea Sense: Engaging the Public on a Potential Environmental Catastrophe

Sunday, February 14, 2016
S. Drew Story, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA
Background: California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, is an impending natural disaster. It receives little attention or support due to its remote location, oft unpleasant smell, economically and politically disadvantaged local residents, and the sheer magnitude of potential costs associated with eluding catastrophe. The Salton Sea is concurrently undergoing rapid salinization and reduction in volume, and these will only accelerate in the near future. Multiple restoration plans have been proposed, but the lack of political willpower has hindered progress. The goals of this ongoing project include public education and engagement, ultimately resulting in elevated public and governmental perception of the Salton Sea. Methods: Vehicles by which to engage the public on environmental and social issues were evaluated. Traditional media, including a white paper, newspaper story, public hearing, and others, were rejected. It was determined the product should be adaptive to current events, promote discussion, and be readily accessible in both English and Spanish. An interdisciplinary team of 9 graduate students established the blog, Salton Sea Sense, to educate and engage the public on matters pertaining to the Salton Sea. Results: Salton Sea Sense currently reaches over 300 unique individuals monthly, resulting in over 5,000 views since April 2015. The online platform allows for the assessment of geographical location, daily readership statistics, and the search queries of visitors. Furthermore, opportunities exist for live discussions, general comments, and further inquiries of readers. Public viewing of various types of blog posts has been assessed, with topics of current events resulting in higher peak visitor numbers, and topics of established scientific information eliciting consistent site traffic. Multiple calls to action have resulted in congressional letters being authored and sent. Readers have been observed to be more informed and empowered by Salton Sea Sense. Conclusions: Engagement with the public requires scientific literacy, resourcefulness, patience, and empathy. Scientific facts alone will not solve the extensive problems at the Salton Sea, nor will engineering capabilities. Rather, diplomacy, in the form of mutually beneficial communication is necessary to impart positive change. The blog supplies free, accessible information, and does so without sacrificing scientific merit. Additionally, the blog is a medium that facilitates both education and the exchange of questions and ideas, and is therefore superior to a one-way delivery of data.