Michael Cohen

Senior Associate

Pacific Institute 


Michael Cohen is a Senior Associate at the Pacific Institute, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California. He has been a leading Salton Sea advocate for more than 20 years, developing revitalization proposals, promoting timely intervention, and writing articles, reports, and opinion pieces. Mr. Cohen is the lead author of three Pacific Institute reports on the Salton Sea:  Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea (1999), Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project (2006), and Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea (2014), as well as an assessment of import/export proposals (see pacinst.org/issues/salton-sea/ for more information). He served on the Natural Resources Agency’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee from 2004-2007 and is a member of the Salton Sea Task Force’s Agency Stakeholder Committee and several of its workgroups. Mr. Cohen has a Master’s degree in Geography, with a concentration in Resources and Environmental Quality, from San Diego State University, and a B.A. in Government from Cornell University.

Title: Challenges Continue at the Salton Sea

Abstract: California’s Salton Sea sees increasing attention but continues to suffer from inaction. The nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer, combined with several other factors, has caused the Sea’s elevation to fall by more than nine feet in the past 17 years. As a result, the Sea’s already high salinity (>60 g/L TDS) will more than double as the lake’s surface drops by >14 feet, exposing >70 square miles of playa, in turn exacerbating already poor air-quality in the region. In November, 2017, California committed to the construction of 29,800 acres of habitat and dust-control projects by 2028. Yet California missed its acreage milestones in both 2018 and 2019, failing to construct a single acre of habitat or dust control projects. The state will miss this year’s acreage milestone as well, despite a new demonstration of political will, as well as more than $300 million in available funds, existing permits, and water. Why do these challenges continue?

New challenges and opportunities also affect this dynamic system. Last year’s adoption of Colorado River drought contingency plans marginalized the Salton Sea and the irrigation district that sustains it. Vegetation has grown atop ~4000 acres of the Sea’s recently-exposed lakebed, creating new  and unanticipated opportunities to protect emergent wetland habitat and minimize dust emissions. Community groups increasingly demand that the state engage with them and incorporate local needs into the planning process. Consensus long-term goals do not exist.


Why We Care

  • The whole environment of Great Salt Lake is a place of wonder. Life abounds in water, on islands, and about the marshland edges where migratory birds find refuge during long flights north and south. It is also a source of income for companies around its rim (unfortunately). Challenges for the Lake today are balancing acts. We must continue to foster the generous gifts the Lake provides for wildlife, community, and visitors as well as make peace with the human intrusions that threaten not only the Lake’s beauty, but also its very existence as the bountiful center of a thriving community along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.

    Maurine Haltiner, Alfred Lambourne Prize Participant