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National Audubon Society

Evan M. Hirsche, Director, Wildlife Refuge Campaign

Before the
Subcommittee on Water and Power

Concerning H.R. 3267

U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
March 12,1998

Mr. Chairman:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide you with our views on H.R. 3267, the "Sonny Bono Memorial Salton Sea Reclamation Act." We appreciate the Committee's interest in honoring the late Representative Bono by promoting a solution' to the ecological crisis occurring at the Salton Sea. The mission of the National Audubon Society, representing more than 67,000 Californians and more than 550,000 Americans nationwide, is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.

The Salton Sea has become a virtual Mecca for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway. More than 380 species call this unlikely alcove in the southern California desert their home as they travel between points as far south as Antarctica and as far north as the Arctic. Indeed, the importance of the Sea transcends national interests and must be considered in the broader international context.

Mr. Chairman, how we respond to this crisis will have broad ramifications for people and ecosystems far beyond the scope of our immediate interests.

The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930 for the purpose of providing wintering and spring migration habitat for birds. At the time it was established the refuge contained 46,800 acres above the Salton Sea's waters; inundation over the years has left the refuge with just 2,400 acreage above water level. In spite of the lost acreage, the refuge today provides vital wintering habitat for some of the largest concentrations of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and passerines in the nation, and provides important habitat for the endangered Yuma clapper rail.

Local communities also benefit substantially from the refuge's existence and wellbeing. A 1994 study conducted by economist Paul Kerlinger concluded that $3.1 million was spent by 54,000 bird watchers in local communities surrounding the Salton Sea.

In spite of the area's tremendous ecological value, massive die-offs of birds and fish have occurred in recent years. In the past five years alone, more than 250,000 birds have died from outbreaks of botulism, Newcastle disease and other undiagnosed causes. As we speak, an outbreak of fowl cholera is ten weeks running, and has already killed an estimated 7,800 - 23,000 birds representing 54 species.

What is happening at Salton Sea is nothing short of an ecological disaster.

The importance of enacting legislation to address the problems of the Salton Sea cannot be overstated. H.R. 3267 is a bold initiative that makes a good faith effort to reach a solution to the crisis. We are concerned, however, that this legislation seeks to accomplish a great deal without a full and accurate accounting of all expected outcomes. We have four main concerns with H.R.3267:

Timetable for identification and review of alternatives; The scope of options under consideration; Exemption of administrative and judicial review; Pumping water from the Sea without a full accounting of disposal impacts.

Timetable for Review

H.R. 3267 proposes a 12-month timeline to complete feasibility studies for a series of complex options identified as "cost effective" by the Bureau of Reclamation. Even under the most optimistic of circumstances, this timeline is unrealistic. Our major concern is that in a rush to comply with this unrealistic timeline, costly mistakes will be made or viable options ignored.

Solving the crisis at the Salton Sea will not be easy. In October of last year, Saving the Salton Sea, a research needs assessment, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the State of California and other federal agencies, concluded that at least three years and $30 million would be necessary to conduct studies alone. While we certainly agree that it's possible to study an issue almost without conclusion, we have equal concerns about hastily adopting an alternative or series of alternatives without having a better sense of the likely outcomes.

Accordingly, the twelve-month timetable provided in H.R. 3267 seems a, woefully short time period in which to accumulate the necessary environmental and engineering data necessary to adopt a realistic alternative. In particular, it is mandatory that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) follow the engineering/ technical studies and the selection of a preferred alternative. To accommodate the sequential ordering of these studies, Audubon believes that this legislation ought to be modified to allow at least an 18-month timeline.

Scope of Options

We must all recognize that there is no "silver bullet" solution to the problems facing the Salton Sea. H.R. 3267, however, limits the feasibility study to just four options, excluding a variety of others. The options identified in this legislation: Pumping water from the Sea; building desalinization impoundments within the Sea; providing infusions of fresh water; and a combination of the three, were adopted from the 1997 Bureau of Reclamation's option assessment, which reviewed 54 alternatives. Rather than selecting alternatives with the best likelihood for success, the BOR selected their alternatives based on fiscal criteria. For the purposes of their selection, the BOR chose those options that would require $10 million or less in annual operating costs.

We don't believe that any realistic option should be excluded because of a narrow set of criteria. Therefore, we strongly encourage the Committee to expand the range of alternatives for consideration to include those that may yield longer-term ecological benefits.

Exemption from Administrative and Judicial Review

National Audubon is strongly opposed to provisions in H.R. 3267 that seek to limit environmental oversight and public participation. Specifically, Section 101(f)(3)(A) would exempt activities associated with implementation of a selected alternative from meeting the full requirements under NEPA. While we appreciate the authors' interest in expediting actions to rectify the crisis in the Salton Sea, we firmly believe that full NEPA compliance should be applied to the selection and implementation of alternatives. Likewise, we object to Section 104(c) which exempts river reclamation activities from having to meet Section 402 requirements under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. It seems contradictory to exempt inflows from meeting pollution standards when our central objective is to clean up the Salton Sea.

We also have concerns about Section 101(f)(3)(B) which limits judicial review of the chosen alternative. Despite the urgency of implementing a remedy, we should not sacrifice the legal rights of U.S. citizens to accomplish our goals.

Pumping Brine from the Salton Sea

Title II of H.R. 3267 requires that the Secretary of the Interior begin pumping water from the Salton Sea prior to December 1, 1998 to accommodate water diversions from unidentified sources. We object to this provision for several reasons. First, Title II appears to bypass necessary environmental oversight mandated under NEPA. The ecological impacts of brine disposal, particularly on the scale addressed by the bill, are expected to be enormous. A full review of the disposal plan, and an opportunity for the public to comment will be critical. Second, it is unclear where diversion water will be drawn from and what the expected ecological and economic impacts on the source are likely to be. Again, we appreciate the need to expedite remediation, but we strongly believe that any such efforts must comply with federal and state environmental regulations.

Conclusion

National Audubon Society appreciates the efforts of this Committee and the sponsors of H.R. 3267 to quickly address the crisis at the Salton Sea. Although there are a number of provisions in the bill that we object to, we are supportive of the overall intent to find and implement a solution in the least amount of time possible. We look forward to working with the Committee as we move forward with this important legislation.