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An Alternative for Salton Sea Restoration

By Tibor Varga
The San Diego Union Tribune, April 12, 2000 (Page B-9:2,7; B-11:1 )

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, and it is dying. Located between San Diego and the Colorado River, it once was a popular fishing and boating destination. But widely reported fish-kills, bird die-offs and the ever-increasing salinity -- now 26 percent higher than ocean waters -- drove most of the visitors away.

Until now, alternatives for restoration of the Salton Sea have been based on wasting huge amounts of water without making water recycling a goal. Earlier this year, a draft environmental impact report was released on the Salton Sea Restoration Project. This draft report is available on the Internet at Public comments are due by April 26.

The draft report considers five alternatives. These alternatives are a combination of various methods for the reduction of water-surface evaporation, removal of salt and importing less salty water.

For removal of salt, it is proposed that water be sprayed from large nozzles or sprinkler heads suspended on wires between aerial towers. The water will evaporate, and the salt will fall to the ground.

This alternative will take 17 square miles of land that will become a salty wasteland. The process will evaporate 150,000 acre-feet of water per year. This is nearly as much water as the city of San Diego imported during each of the past seven years.

Evaporation ponds are also considered for the removal of salt. These ponds will take 33 square miles from the Salton Sea, an area 11 times larger than Mission Bay, San Diego's water recreation paradise.

In addition to removal of salt by evaporation, up to 250,000 acre-feet per year of high-salinity water would be pumped from the Salton Sea to either the Gulf of California near San Felipe or into the Pacific Ocean near Oceanside. This will take 140 miles of pipeline large enough to drive a car inside. The amount of water pumped will be more than the recently negotiated water transfer between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority.

To replace the high-salinity water pumped from the Salton Sea, it will be necessary to replenish the sea with less salty water. For this, flows would be diverted from the Colorado River Delta to the Salton Sea. An additional 304,000 acre-feet per year of brackish water (with about one-tenth the salinity of Salton Sea water) could be imported from Arizona through a new canal paralleling the 80-mile-long All American Canal between the Colorado River and the Salton Sea.

Because so much attention is placed on the preservation of large and deep open-water areas, all the alternatives proposed so far will waste huge amounts of water. These alternatives also will fail to stabilize water salinity and shorelines.

Most wildlife and fisheries experts consider shallow water bays, deltas and estuaries as the most productive habitats. Bays, islands and deltas are also the most popular boating areas. Consider that the widest open-water area in San Diego, Mission Bay, is only about three-quarters of a mile across.

This plan will save water and energy, and reduce operational costs.

A better alternative to achieve the goals of the Salton Sea Restoration Project is through the use of proven dredging technology, which created the causeways and islands of Mission Bay.

It should also be a goal to recycle 50 percent of the water flowing into the Salton Sea for agricultural use. Reduced inflows will make it possible to enhance one-third of the Salton Sea for fisheries, wildlife and recreational uses while the remaining two-thirds could serve as a repository for high salinity drainage.

Dikes built within the Salton Sea in water less than 20 feet deep may ring the deepest part of the lake. This will be necessary to maintain lower salinity levels in shallow water areas. It will take about the same length of dikes and canals already proposed in the draft report. Where the lake bed is shallow, the dike may be three miles from present shorelines. Therefore, this new delta within the Salton Sea with its stable water level, salinity and shoreline may cover one-third of the present surface area of the Salton Sea, but this area would as much as 40 times larger than Mission Bay.

Declining water levels of the deeper inner lake will provide storage capacity for storm inflows to prevent overflowing during wet years. While salinity of the inner, deeper lake will increase, it will serve as a salt sink for the outer lake, thus improving its fish, wildlife and recreational values. This natural concept will create a new delta within the Salton Sea for its tributary streams and rivers like the Whitewater River and the Alamo River.

Future inflows to the Salton Sea will be reduced by water conservation and recycling of agricultural drainage. This is necessary to ensure that the inner sea will be able to hold storm flows without overflowing during wet years.

In exchange for the conserved water, urban areas will finance agricultural recycling. The amount of water recycled and conserved could equal the amount of water imported by San Diego County, the Metropolitan Water District's largest consumer. This could increase water supplies in Southern California and help to meet California's goal of living within its Colorado River water allocation.

Channels, islands and causeways created by dredging in this new delta will provide a stable and predictable environment for fish and wildlife. Recreational and resort developments also would be possible to help meet the growing needs of Southern California's increasing population. This will increase economic opportunities in Imperial County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates and lowest per-capita incomes in California.

This Alamo/Whitewater River Delta alternative will save water and energy, and will reduce capital and operational costs in comparison to alternatives now being proposed. Environmental impacts of this alternative will be limited to lands presently occupied by the Salton Sea.

There is no need to waste water through forced evaporation, as current alternatives mandate. That is why we need to add the Alamo/Whitewater River Delta plan to the list of alternatives now considered for restoration of safe and productive fish and wildlife habitats and create safe opportunities for recreation and economic development at the Salton Sea.

Varga is a senior engineer for the city of San Diego Water Department. He recently completed a six-week assignment in Alexandria, Egypt, assisting local water and drainage authorities with contingency planning.

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