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The Toxic Sea

Cleaning Up The Salton Sea Is Imperative

Editorial, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 28, 1997

The Salton Sea is a dying sea. Each day, it becomes more toxic. It's the American version of the Aral Sea, a body of water in central Asia so mismanaged by Soviet engineers that its waters became dangerous to touch.

Since the Salton Sea's only sources of water are agricultural and urban drainage ditches, and since it has no outlet, it becomes more saline and polluted every day.

After it was created in 1905 by a broken Colorado River levee, the Salton Sea was a popular fishing, boating and swimming lake. But in recent decades, it has become filthy. Millions of fish and 200,000 birds have died in and around the sea in the last two years alone.

Now, the federal government is considering a $328 million project to reverse its ecological decline. A bill has been proposed in congress in memory of the late Rep. Sonny Bono, who represented nearby Palm Springs and was a strong advocate for cleaning up the sea. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has thrown his weight behind the plan.

The first part of this plan would be a one-year study to determine what must be done to clean up the sea. It wouldn't be an easy task, since all the rivers that feed it are polluted with agricultural runoff or sewage and toxic pollution. The New River, a flowing cesspool that runs northward out of Mexicali, is particularly fetid.

A cleaner Salton Sea would benefit all of Southern California. It could become a wonderful recreational amenity in the middle of the desert. Already, it supports a huge amount of wildlife. But the sea is currently 25 percent saltier than the ocean, and its salinity climbs as sea water evaporates in the desert sun and it's fed by highly saline runoff.

If this trend continues, everything in the sea will die. The Bono project is imperative. Without it, the Salton Sea will become the Toxic Sea.

Note: Those who believe the Salton Sea is a valuable resource for people and wildlife will welcome the Union-Tribune's support for its restoration. However, the hyperbole in the editorial's opening paragraph is not needed. It is typical of the inaccurate press this body of water has received for many years. By no stretch of the imagination is it "a dying sea," and it has almost nothing in common with the Aral Sea except for the fact that they are both saline lakes lacking outflows. Despite the need for various measures to improve its health, the Salton Sea remains an excellent spot for sport fishing, water sports, camping, and birdwatching. The public's understanding of the Sea will be aided by the expanded program of research on it that is now getting underway. - S. Hurlbert, SDSU

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