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Audubon Society-California

Salton Sea Task Force on the
"Phase One" Alternatives for Resolving the Problems of the Salton Sea

May 1999

The Audubon-California Salton Sea Task Force has adopted the following as a position statement on the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed alternatives for restoring ecosystem health to the Salton Sea and associated water bodies, as these alternatives appeared in April of 1999. This statement supercedes the one issued in October of 1998, which was based on the Bureau of Reclamation's 38 alternative strategies for stabilizing the Salton Sea's salinity.

We continue to affirm that the Salton Sea, though largely an artificial feature, is a significant regional asset and a vital water body for resident, summer-breeding, migrating, post-breeding, and wintering avifauna. We affirm that rehabilitating and maintaining its viability as wildlife habitat should be a high national priority.

We strongly urge that agency studies and Congressional legislation to resolve the Salton Sea's problems include the entire watershed of the Sea (and any extra-basin environments that may be involved), and should take in all elements of the regional ecosystem and all human activities that impact or depend upon it (wildlife habitat, agriculture, animal husbandry, fish production, recreation and ecotourism, geothermal energy, hunting, etc.).

As the Bureau of Reclamation and the Salton Sea Authority put forward their recommendations, we urge that the following considerations be incorporated into these studies:

1. The primary reason for undertaking a Salton Sea project is to maintain a viable inland lake suitable for use by a wide variety of wildlife that have greatly varying habitat needs. Goals that focus on regional development or other questions of the local economy, while important, should be compatible with, and not detract from, the primary goal .

2. The various problems being experienced by the Salton Sea are the result of continued human input of pollutants such as nutrients, pesticides, industrial wastes, and microorganisms. Future exacerbation of these problems is threatened by various proposed projects that would result in the loss of lower-salinity inflow water. Any proposed rehabilitation plan for the Sea must address all of these pollutants and the situations that cause them, must be based on the best possible science, and must include corrective measures that will be done in a timely manner, not postponed until the adverse effects become irreversible. Such plans should also include any changes in the operation of the basin's agroecosystem that may be required to maintain the long-term health of the Sea.

3. It must be emphasized that the Salton Sea is an interior, or terminal, drainage. All interior drainages are subject to severe natural fluctuations in both surface level and salinity. Although in theory both can be regulated by human intervention, the full costs, both monetary and ecological, of doing so should be carefully assessed. Proposals to stabilize the Sea's surface level must address how periods of very high natural inflow (such as 1977-1983) will be handled at an acceptable cost. Stabilizing the Sea's surface level is not essential to improving wildlife habitat; however, if the Sea's level is to be stabilized, Audubon would prefer to see it stabilized at close to the existing level, as opposed to many meters lower which would result in exposure of unstable and contaminated bottom sediments and jeopardize many existing rookeries.

4. The Bureau's proposals for reducing salinity (both diking and "pump-in-pump-out" options) must adequately address the disposal of the extracted salt or brines, including full study (including long-term monitoring) of the effects on the region where these excess salts will be deposited. Such facilities must be designed and sited such that neither wildlife habitat nor human activities are destroyed or adversely altered.

5. The question of the harmful effects of nutrients that presently enter the Sea must be studied as part of the Bureau's "Phase One", and as part of the environmental impact analyses that will accompany Phase One. Environmental studies of the harmful pollutants that enter the Sea should include as one alternative, and as an integral part of the solution, detailed plans for source reduction, and not just for removal or neutralization.

6. We urge that inflows into the Salton Sea from the New, Alamo, and Whitewater Rivers be considered beneficial uses of river water under the provisions of California's Public Trust Doctrine.

7. The National Audubon Society will not view as acceptable any proposal for relieving the problems of the Salton Sea that in any way further deteriorates the Gulf of California, especially its upper end. If possible, improvement in the quality of the upper Gulf of California, and restoration of the Colorado River delta should be incorporated into Salton Sea restoration plans. We would oppose any proposal to divert additional water directly from the Colorado River to the Salton Sea.

8. The human uses of the Sea include the many Native American and other people that subsistence fish from the sea. The levels of toxic materials in the fish are imprecisely known but feared to be high. The health of all those who utilize products from the Sea is important and must be safeguarded as part of the improvement plans.

9. Many of the Bureau's Phase One and Phase Two options will require large amounts of electrical energy for pumping or desalinization. We urge that these increases in southern California energy demand be identified for each alternative, with a discussion of how such increases in energy demand can best be met, including possible use of renewable energy sources.

10. The National Audubon Society will support proactive solutions to help save the sea. We recognize that many of the proposals to solve the problems of the Salton Sea will be very costly. We should not dismiss proposals to save the sea just because they are complex or expensive. The entire western United States bears testimony to large, expensive engineering projects that have destroyed many important natural habitats. An extensive engineering project to effect environmental enhancement in a critical region such as the Salton Sea should be equally acceptable to the members of Congress. The financing package should reflect a local committment from those who stand to gain monetarily from the project.

We call on all agencies involved in the study of the problems of the Salton Sea to give full consideration to the above points as they formulate and evaluate their proposed solutions. The Audubon Society stands ready to help in any way it can.

Adopted by the National Audubon Society - California,
as drafted by its Salton Sea Task Force, May 1999.

Contact: Philip R. Pryde, chair, Salton Sea Task Force

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