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Desert Water Wars

Looming Vote Could Determine The Future Of The Salton Sea

By Laura Mecoy -- Bee Los Angeles Bureau
The Sacramento Bee, Saturday, December 7, 2002

Fig.1 Snow geese take flight in the morning sky above the Salton Sea, where receding waters have left these piers high and dry on the lake's shore. Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt


SALTON CITY -- From a chair perched at the end of his dock, Norm Niver surveyed the broad expanse of dark water and the flock of American white pelicans swooping across the horizon.

Then he explained why he's spent the last 30 years at the frequently maligned and often misunderstood Salton Sea.

"Peace!" the 72-year-old musician said, raising his arms heavenward. "It's just beautiful, absolutely beautiful."

Amid the stillness, though, a water war is raging, and the future of Niver's piece of paradise is jeopardized.

The Salton Sea is California's largest lake, one of its most productive fisheries, a key stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway and a refuge for several endangered and threatened species.

It is also the site of dramatic fish and bird die-offs. It's already 25 percent more salty than the ocean, and scientists say it soon could be too saline to support the life it does today.

On Monday, Imperial Irrigation District directors plan to cast the final vote on a water deal that would protect the sea for 15 years while slowly reducing the state's draw of Colorado River water.

The outcome is uncertain, and Niver and most Salton Sea residents are urging the board to reject the deal -- even though the federal government has threatened to cut off about a third of Southern California's urban water supply if it does.

That could create pressure to pump more water south through the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"We hate it," Niver said of the water deal. "We don't want it, and we don't believe the big lie that these people are going to go thirsty if it's turned down."

Niver, who is the West Shore Chamber of Commerce president and publisher of a local newsletter, contends the deal doesn't go far enough in protecting the sea.

But former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, the Sherman Oaks Democrat who conducted the last round of negotiations, said protecting the sea was the reason for the final water deal.

"We just couldn't figure out how to protect the Salton Sea for eternity, so we said, let's protect it for 15 years," he said.

In a windswept desert valley 35 miles north of the California-Mexico border, the Salton Sea once drew more tourists than Yosemite National Park. Today, few consider it to be the natural wonder Yosemite is.

The sea has come and gone over the eons as the lower Colorado River changed its course, flooding the area and then returning to the Gulf of California.

But its current incarnation was man-made. In 1905, the Colorado River broke through poorly built irrigation controls and flooded a vast depression then called the Salton Sink.

When the breach was filled in 1907, most expected the Salton Sea -- with less than 3 inches of rain annually -- to evaporate.

In 1922, however, California and six other western states signed the Colorado River Compact. The Imperial Valley got the biggest share of any of the river's users. Colorado River water then flowed through Imperial Valley's farms and into the Salton Sea.

The agricultural drainage feeding the sea was loaded with salt and nutrients. Without an outlet, the water evaporated and left high concentrations of salts and nutrients in the sea.

In the late 1950s, developers viewed this saltwater lake as a potential paradise. They built hotels, a marina and streets. They staged boat races that drew up to 10,000 spectators and golf tournaments with top national players.

Salton City motel owner Ray Jennings remembers when the beaches were so crowded that he took the family's boat to the middle of the lake to swim.

"If you weren't here by Thursday night, you wouldn't get a camping spot on the water," his wife, Carol, said.

The crowds began to disappear in the 1970s, when increased rain and agricultural drainage caused the sea to rise, inundating many lakefront developments.

A 1986 warning about selenium levels in the fish earned the sea a new moniker, the "Salton sewer." Huge numbers of fish and birds began to die. Biologists said the fish die-offs were part of the natural course of a lake, as algae and high water temperatures sucked oxygen out of the water.

Regardless of the cause, the prospect of encountering rotting fish on the beaches turned Salton City into a virtual ghost town.

Only the birds increased their numbers at the sea. They had few other places to go because 90 percent of California's wetlands have been lost to development.

"The Salton Sea is probably the most important inland aquatic habitat for birds in the Southwest," said Stuart Hurlbert, director of the San Diego State University Center for Inland Waters. "There is nothing to take its place."

Disease spread quickly, however, through the huge flocks of birds. In 1992, the first big bird die-off claimed 150,000 grebes.

Four years later, the bird deaths hit their peak. More than 14,000 died, including 20 percent of the American white pelicans' western population and 1,000 endangered brown pelicans. It was the largest reported die-off of an endangered species.

Sylvia Pelizza, Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge project leader, said pelicans contracted botulism by eating sick tilapia fish floating on the sea's surface.

She said new management practices and healthier fish reduced the bird deaths to about 800 over the past two years.

But the damage to the sea's reputation was done, and even some environmentalists began to question whether it was worth saving.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the six other states with Colorado River water rights demanded that California reduce its water use.

The state has long used more than its allotted 4.4 million acre-feet annually of Colorado River water, and the bureau agreed that its reduction of California's water supply would be slow if the water districts worked out an agreement.

As part of the agreement, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed in 1998 to transfer some of its water to San Diego.

The Salton Sea Authority objected, saying the transfer would cause the shallow lake to drop 15 feet and expose almost 70 square miles of sediment.

It warned that the exposed sediment could create the same lung-clogging particulate air pollution that plagued the Owens Valley after Los Angeles drained Owens Lake.

Environmental groups that had supported the transfer suddenly shifted course.

"We realized we could have the greatest environmental tragedy since Owens Lake ... on our watch," Karen Douglas, Planning and Conservation League natural resources director, said.

The Southern California water agencies reopened negotiations this summer, which led to the deal up for a vote Monday.

Several plans for reducing salt and nutrients in the Salton Sea are in the works, with price tags estimated as high as $900 million.Tom Kirk, the Salton Sea Authority's executive director, said the costs could rise to $2 billion to $3 billion if the sea's water supply is reduced after 15 years.

Hurlbert, who's studied the sea for 25 years for San Diego State University, said the next 15 years of population growth will increase urban demand for the sea's water supply.

"Postponing the hard decisions until we are in a more severe bind guarantees the death of the Salton Sea in the form it is now," he said.

The biologist said the only solution is to stop the population growth, but "no one wants to hear that."

In the Imperial Valley, where unemployment is high and personal income low, the water transfers are hugely unpopular

One county supervisor called the transfers "the great water rape," while another dubbed them a "shotgun wedding."

The federal government set a Dec. 31 deadline for the Southern California water agencies to approve the deal, and the Imperial Irrigation District is the only one that has failed to do so.

The district's board is split with one member, Vice Chairman Bruce Kuhn, considered the swing vote. He said he doesn't know how he'll vote.

If the board rejects the deal, Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said California is "extremely" likely to lose access to its surplus Colorado River water.

"The important thing for people to understand is this is not just a California issue," he said. "It is a seven-state issue."

From his dock at the Salton Sea, Niver dismissed the threats. If the deal falls apart, he figures the water transfer goes by the wayside, and the Salton Sea continues to get the water it needs.

Niver also figures the federal cutback in California's Colorado River supply would be tied up in litigation for years to come.

"People here are just as happy as hell to let it happen," he said. "Why would you want to destroy this so the cities can keep growing?"

Fig. 2 Baked Salton Sea sediment. Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt

Fig. 3 A man and his son fish on a late November morning at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, on the lake's northeast shore. The lake is fed mainly by agricultural drainage and has no outlet. It is estimated to be 25 percent saltier than the ocean.Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt

Fig. 4 A former motel sits on the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea. Tourists began to disappear in the 1970s, when the rising lake inundated many lakefront developments. Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt

Fig. 5 Norm Niver, 72, relaxes on a pier at his home on the Salton Sea. He says the Colorado River water pact will destroy the lake that negotiators say the deal aims to save. Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt

Fig. 6 Salt-encrusted mobile homes and decaying structures are all that remains of Bombay Beach, a tiny town on the Salton Sea's east side that residents once hoped to make a Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt

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