On January 21st, I went on a day trip with San Diego American Planning Association (SDAPA) to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The SDAPA includes Imperial County, and it was a great opportunity to see the Imperial County, first hand. It was my first tour with SDAPA, and it was a very valuable and wonderful experience. As an undergraduate student majoring in Urban Studies and Planning at the University of California, San Diego, I am always very eager to learn everything about urban and environmental planning and to meet professionals who are working in these fields. The Salton Sea Tour turned out to be a perfect opportunity for me to gain knowledge about planning in the real world and get to know professionals in the SDAPA from both San Diego and the Imperial Valley.

            On the bus, I learned about the history of the Salton Sea and the current plans for smart growth and sustainable energy at the Salton Sea. At the beginning of last century, farmers and business people saw the Salton Sea area as an area with excellent potential to develop agriculture, so they built canals to direct water from Colorado River to the Salton “Sink.” It was a successful move at that time, as the sink filled with water, ultimately becoming the largest water body in California. In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was regarded as one of California‘s gems and it became a popular tourist attraction; however, as Mr. Brian Mooney, FAICP, of Rick Engineering, mentioned in his introduction of its history, “the river shifted south for a final time to the Gulf of California, abandoning the Salton basin.” After that, the size of the Salton Sea shrunk gradually, and became polluted by pesticides. Due to its hazardous over-abundance of salt,  the Salton Sea started to be ignored and seen as an engineering mistake by people and the government.

            When we arrived to the Salton Sea in person, I could immediately tell that what I had just learned was true. It looked like it was abandoned because I found no one walking on the beach, and there were very few residential areas nearby. Different from typical blue Californian sea water, its water was very brown owing to the pollutants. When I was walking on the trail, I could smell the bad odor from the sea. Fortunately, I am glad to know that Salton Sea Authority and Mr. Mooney’s Rick Engineering Company are now working on Salton Sea planning to improve the situation. I was also impressed by some avant-garde environmental planning methods implemented on this project. Our tour guide, Tom Anderson, introduced us their plans: “The black lines on the dry land are the pipelines we built in order to connect Salton Sea and the fresh water from nearby rivers. In this way, we can blend the salty sea water with fresh water; therefore, reducing the amount of salt in the Salton Sea. We are also planning to introduce native fish to the sea.” This serves as an important area for migratory birds. Besides the pipeline project, I was surprised to find eleven geothermal energy bases by the Salton Sea. Before this tour, I had never really thought about how geothermal energy could be used to protect and improve the environment. This idea of allowing geothermal plants and the Salton Sea to coexist peacefully was totally new to me. Both the pipeline project and the geothermal plants broadened my horizon significantly and helped me gain useful knowledge about advanced planning techniques, which I was unable to truly understand from only my classes in the college setting.

            The Salton Sea Tour not only enabled me to learn some vital planning methods, but also taught me an unforgettable lesson: we should never neglect any environmental issues and should try our best to deal with them since they are big threats to all precious lives. Because of the shrinking size of the sea, an increase in airborne dust brought catastrophic effects to all citizens and all living creatures in the Salton Sea region. The frequent dust storms lead to very high childhood asthma rates and devastate the agriculture through polluting the crops. Our tour guide introduced their monitoring system to us: “These monitors are able to detect particular matters in the air, and they will warn the kids not to go out when the test results indicate that the air quality is too poor. We keep collecting the data and we hope that the government can pay attention to our health problems one day.” Impressed by such technology, I was also a bit sad for his words. I realized how urgent it is to save the Salton Sea. We cannot abandon the Salton Sea just because it is deemed as an engineering failure. If it is really a mistake, we should improve such a “mistake” and enable it to bring benefits to people and birds instead of harming them. No matter how expensive and difficult saving the Salton Sea is, we must not dismiss any optimistic opportunities for we have responsibilities to create a healthy environment to protect people. Good urban planners ought to put citizens’ safety as their first concern. By ignoring any environmental issues, we would put all living creatures’ lives at risks. The ultimate goal of all urban planners is to improve the built and natural environment, which is a blessing to all generations on earth. Although the Salton Sea region is only one small part of the whole country, the health of the citizens and animals there are very precious and deserve the assistance from everyone and the government. I remember hearing a planner that worked on the Salton Sea master planning efforts in the early days saying that there was no public outreach when he was working on the Salton Sea project in the last century. Fortunately, with the current developed technologies in today’s society, it is much easier to reach out to the public and the government. Therefore, it is also our duty to arouse the public’s attention and persuade the government to invest more in this project now.

            What I like about the Salton Sea Tour most is that I had the opportunity to talk to many urban planning professionals in San Diego and Imperial County. They welcomed us students with heart-warming smiles, and were eager to answer all our curious questions and give us most sincere advice. As an inexperienced college student who wants to pursue a career in urban design, I felt very thankful to be a part of the tour held by SDAPA; since the professionals opened a brand-new world of urban planning and design to me. Through many conversations, I felt that the path to my future academic pursuit and career is brighter and clearer. They gave me valuable and practical guidance on what my next steps should be in order to be a good urban designer in the future. They also talked about their own personal experiences in their careers to encourage me not to be depressed if I met any adversities. I was very moved by their encouragement and genuine care towards me. Indeed, before I went on the Salton Sea Tour, I had never thought of having so many inspirational conversations and having the opportunity to build networks. After the tour, I am more determined to work harder to realize my goal.

At the end of the tour, the bus took us into Downtown Brawley, where we went to a restaurant/bar called Inferno where we ate lunch and got to mingle and meet more planners from the Imperial Valley. This was a great opportunity to meet more people and hear more about the history of the broader area. The Salton Sea Tour held by San Diego American Planning Association serves as a fantastic start-off of my determination to be an urban designer in the future and to actively engage in various kinds of planning activities. This tour is definitely meaningful in that it broadens my horizon, enriches my knowledge about planning from a real-world perspective, and offers invaluable chances to build networks. I learned so much and have had a more positive attitude towards my future ever since. I will certainly join more activities and tours of SDAPA because I found them to be very educational, helpful, and inspirational.