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Haven or Hazard:

The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea


Michael J. Cohen
Jason I. Morrison
Edward P. Glenn

A report of the


February 1999

Executive Overview 

The Salton Sea, the largest inland body of water in the state of California, lies 35 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in one of the most arid regions in North America. With a surface elevation approximately 227 feet below that of the ocean, the Salton Sea is a study in contrasts: it is an agricultural drainage repository that provides vital habitat for more than 380 species of birds, a lake twenty-five percent saltier than the ocean yet teeming with fish, a productive ecosystem marred by frequent fish and bird die-offs. These contrasts reflect the variety of agricultural, ecological, and recreational values provided by the Salton Sea and are emblematic of the challenges faced by those attempting to preserve and enhance them. The objective of this study is to assess and offer guidance on the complex challenges confronting the Salton Sea and the current efforts to restore it. From a public interest perspective, we evaluate the federal/state strategy for restoring the Salton Sea and propose an alternative, long-term framework for preserving and enhancing the regional ecosystem.

The Salton Sea can only be understood in the context of its physical attributes and the human activities in its watershed. The development of large-scale irrigation projects in the Imperial and Coachella valleys has changed the face of the Salton basin, transforming a desert into a productive agricultural region. Today, approximately 1.35 million acre-feet (maf) of water enters the Sea annually, more than 75 percent of which is U.S. agricultural drainage. The quantity of this agricultural drainage sustains the Sea, yet the quality of drainage is responsible for many of the Sea's problems. The Salton Sea is a terminal lake - the only outflow for its waters is through evaporation. As water evaporates, salts, selenium, and other contaminants are concentrated in the Sea and its sediments.

Since 1992, hundreds of thousands of birds have died at the Salton Sea. In the first four months of 1998 alone, 17,000 birds at the Sea, representing 70 species, died from a variety of diseases. Deteriorating ecological conditions have generated concern about the continued viability of the Sea as a stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. Massive fish die-offs, linked to eutrophic conditions at the Sea, are also a frequent occurrence. The Salton Sea is also becoming increasingly saline, jeopardizing the future existence of fish in the Sea.

For more than thirty years, private entities and state and federal agencies have developed proposals to restore the Salton Sea. Until recently, these proposals have foundered, primarily due to their considerable costs. The profusion of recent fish and wildlife deaths at the Salton Sea has captured the attention of the media and policymakers, spurring a call for action to address the Sea's problems. As a result, more than $20 million in state and federal funds have been allocated over the last several years to study and address the problems of the Salton Sea. A critical distinction between the current Salton Sea restoration effort and prior initiatives is the explicit recognition of the ecological importance of the Sea.

The restoration of the Salton Sea is an extremely difficult endeavor, complicated by competing interests and limited scientific information. Part of the difficulty in restoration lies in determining the cause of current problems at the Sea, as well as how the costs of restoration should be allocated. Numerous interests, including lakeshore property-owners, the environmental community, large and small farmers in the basin, and the nation as a whole, stand to benefit from some aspect of restoration of the Sea, though these benefits may not always be compatible.

Even the concept of restoration is not straightforward. The Salton Sea is part of a dynamic system that has witnessed the creation and evaporation of many "seas" in its current location. Restoration connotes the return of the Salton Sea to a previous state of ecosystem health and stability. Given the natural tendency of prior incarnations of the Sea to become increasingly saline and eventually evaporate entirely, returning the Sea to some pre-determined, static state and preserving it there requires the selection of a desired vision for the Sea. Such a constructed, static Sea would be continuously at odds with the natural forces of evaporation and would require continual management and monitoring.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and California's Salton Sea Authority are the lead agencies working to identify potential restoration alternatives for the Sea. A proposed restoration plan is expected by January 1, 2000. The long-term goals of the Salton Sea Restoration Project are to preserve the role of the Sea as a designated agricultural sump, enhance recreational and wildlife values, and increase the economic potential of the area. In order to meet these goals, the lead agencies have developed a set of operational objectives for the restoration effort. These operational objectives are to reduce and stabilize the level of the Salton Sea at 232 feet below mean sea level and to reduce the Sea's salinity to 40 parts per thousand. The lead agencies have stated they will address other factors compromising the ecological health of the Sea through a multi-phase program. For the reasons set forth in this analysis, we conclude that this stepwise approach will not achieve the lead agencies' long-term objectives.

For four interrelated reasons, the current efforts to restore the Salton Sea are flawed:

  1. The current strategy of the Restoration Project neither reflects nor satisfies the public interest.

    The public expectation and paramount justification for federal intervention is the preservation and improvement of ecological conditions at the Salton Sea. Public concern about the ecology of the Sea suggests that restoring the Sea's ecosystem should be the primary measure by which policy alternatives are judged. However, the lead agencies' strategy is conceptually reversed, as there is little evidence that the emphasis of the restoration plan - infrastructure for salinity and elevation stabilization - will produce ecological benefits at the Salton Sea over the short or long term. This approach ignores the expressed public interest and risks spending billions of dollars on an engineering solution, without a basic understanding of whether the proposed infrastructure will improve or exacerbate environmental conditions in the region.

  2. Decisions are being driven by arbitrary and unrealistic political timelines, not by scientific evidence.

    Political timelines set by the Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998 have precluded sufficient scientific research on the ecology of the Sea from meaningfully informing the restoration process. The lead agencies have already narrowed the restoration plan to five proposed alternatives, but the Science Subcommittee's research on the ecology of the Salton Sea and surrounding ecosystems has only recently been initiated. Until an environmental baseline for the Salton Sea has been established, the feasibility and adequacy of the alternatives cannot be addressed.

  3. The major problems may not be related to salinity, which is the focus of the current plan.

    The short timeline for the Restoration Project has been justified by the perception that the Salton Sea is facing an ecological "crisis" due to rising salinity and that immediate action is necessary to prevent a catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Ironically, the crisis at the Salton Sea, if there is one, is the massive fish and bird die offs, which most scientists do not believe are directly related to salinity. Therefore, it is unlikely that the crisis will be resolved by controlling salinity - the cornerstone of the restoration plan.

  4. The focus on salinity distracts from other anthropogenic factors in the basin that are more directly linked to the ecological problems of the Salton Sea.

The Restoration Project is flawed by its narrow focus. The current ecological problems of the Salton Sea are much greater than an incremental rise in salinity. A more credible approach would be to address the Salton Sea in the context of a complex agricultural-ecological system, where both natural factors such as climate and elevation and anthropogenic factors such as land use impact the Sea.

This report provides an alternative framework for approaching Salton Sea restoration that is based on principles of environmental sustainability and social equity. The Salton Sea is a component of a larger, regional ecosystem and its restoration must be compatible with longer-term and broader efforts for restoring the Colorado River delta and upper Gulf of California ecoregion. The Pacific Institute believes that the principles and recommendations summarized below should guide the selection and implementation of a restoration plan for the Salton Sea.

Principles for Sustainability and Equity

  1. The primary goal of any restoration plan must be to provide for a healthy ecological system and protect human health. 

    The impetus for public support for federal intervention regarding the Salton Sea is the failing health of the ecosystem. Improving the Sea's ecosystem health and aesthetics are a precursor to economic redevelopment at the Sea, including the ability to attract investment and generate recreation-based revenues. According a high priority to restoring the Sea's ecology is compatible with ensuring that the Sea continues to receive agricultural return flows of reasonable quality, as the wildlife habitat at the Sea could not exist without these flows. In addition, there are a number of human health issues related to water quality in and around the Sea that must be addressed for the Restoration Project to be successful. Almost all of the long-term goals listed by the lead agencies are unattainable without a healthy Salton Sea ecosystem. 

  2. Any restoration plan should be firmly grounded in a scientific understanding of the ecology of the Salton Sea and related ecosystems. 

    Sustainable restoration of the Salton Sea requires an understanding of the complex factors creating the current crises, as well as the ecological implications of future actions. Although there is a need to begin ameliorating the problems at the Sea, it is essential that a scientific understanding of the region's ecology be incorporated into the restoration process prior to the selection and implementation of any restoration plan. Significant gaps remain in our knowledge of the relationship between the Sea's water quality problems and ecosystem health, as well as our understanding of what realistically can be done to improve the ecology of the Salton Sea. 

  3. Any restoration plan should address all the water quality factors responsible for the current problems at the Salton Sea. 

    Increasing salinity is one of many factors responsible for the ecological and economic problems at the Salton Sea. According to many sources, including the Bureau of Reclamation and the Salton Sea Authority, nutrient and contaminant loading are the primary factors responsible for the widespread fish kills common at the Salton Sea. The lead agencies have acknowledged the need to address nutrient and selenium loading, although not as a first-phase priority.

  4. Parties responsible for the current problems facing the Salton Sea and beneficiaries of its restoration should bear an equitable share of the costs. 

    Many of the current ecological problems at the Salton Sea can be attributed to human action, particularly the intensive use of water and fertilizers in the Imperial Valley. A fundamental premise of any restoration plan must be that the beneficiaries of the Sea's designation as a repository for agricultural waste, as well as those property owners who stand to gain from restoring the Sea, should contribute to the costs of restoration. 

  5. Any restoration plan must be compatible with region-wide water conservation and voluntary reallocation programs. 

    Valid engineering and restoration recommendations require reasonably accurate estimates of future inflows and a comprehensive water budget for the Salton Sea. Current inflows to the Salton Sea average approximately 1.35 million acre-feet per year, but for several reasons this figure will likely decrease significantly in the future. To date, the lead agencies have not appropriately integrated expectations of more efficient agricultural water use into the Restoration Project. The lead agencies' projected rates of annual inflows and concomitant lake levels could undermine potential water conservation efforts in the region.

  6. Any restoration plan for the Salton Sea must be compatible with protection and restoration of the Colorado River delta, upper Gulf of California, and other ecosystems in the region. 

    The Salton Sea should be addressed from a regional perspective that includes analyzing potential impacts on interrelated ecosystems. Its restoration should not be accomplished by compromising the ecological and/or human health of other areas, such as the Colorado delta and upper Gulf. Externalizing the problems of the Sea by pumping brine and pollutants out of the basin would inappropriately remove the burden from those responsible for the current problems. A benefit of taking a regional approach is added flexibility. Within this broader context, it is possible to preserve the region's integrity as a stopover on the Pacific Flyway, even if the Salton Sea were to continue to increase in salinity. 

  7. The Restoration Project must be transparent, inclusive, and fully integrated with other actions impacting the Salton Sea.

The scope and potential magnitude of the Salton Sea Restoration Project require an inclusive process that actively seeks input from a broad array of interests. A comparable initiative, the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, has structured a consensus-based approach with a formal role for representatives from federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the environmental community and other stakeholders. The Salton Sea restoration effort, in comparison, is being run by only two agencies with limited public agency participation and no formal role for public interest groups. An open, inclusive process would provide legitimacy to a restoration project that could cost federal taxpayers more than a billion dollars.


  • Expand the Restoration Project's objectives to give a higher priority to the restoration and preservation of ecosystems at and around the Salton Sea.
  • At present, existing plans for Salton Sea restoration do not adequately address the ecological health of the Sea and related aquatic ecosystems. Several of the stated objectives of the Restoration Project are in potential conflict with ecosystem health, but few details have been provided on how protection of natural areas and other designated uses of the Sea will be reconciled.

  • Explicitly address impacts to human health in the restoration plan.
  • A detailed plan for protecting and improving human health throughout the Salton Sea basin is not currently a component of any proposed restoration alternative. Similarly, regional efforts to address water quality problems that threaten human health have not been integrated into the restoration process. A potential threat to human health arises from the expected lowering of the surface of the Salton Sea. Unless this process is carefully managed, it could expose tens of thousands of acres of lakebed, potentially dispersing large quantities of airborne pollutants.

  • Establish a comprehensive environmental baseline for the Salton Sea and its environs before conducting feasibility studies of restoration alternatives.
  • Baseline assessments of the ecology of the Salton Sea that include the chemical and biological processes that affect wildlife should be the measure against which alternatives for restoration are compared. Federal lawmakers should extend the timeline for the completion of the restoration plan to ensure that the recommended course of action is firmly supported by scientific data.

  • Consider the benefits and shortcomings of allowing salinity in the Sea to increase unimpeded.
  • The potential magnitude of the costs and the uncertain ecological benefits and impacts associated with an infrastructure-based restoration plan underscore the importance of an objective analysis of whether a plan to reduce salinity is cost effective and will provide benefits for the ecosystem. Further investigation might demonstrate that it is desirable and more cost effective to manage the Salton Sea as an ecologically-stable salt lake rather than as an artificial, quasi-marine ecosystem that cannot be sustained without costly, ongoing human intervention.

  • Expand the first phase of the Restoration Project to address agricultural, industrial, and municipal pollutants.
  • Selectively addressing salinity and elevation while permitting the Sea to remain eutrophic, with increasing levels of selenium, pesticide residues, nutrients, and other contaminants, will undermine and eventually defeat efforts to reinvigorate the Sea's ecological health and improve its recreational potential.

  • The Regional Water Quality Control Board, Region 7, should place a higher priority on development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nutrient loading in water bodies of the Salton Sea watershed.
  • Region 7 has developed a Watershed Management Initiative "integrated plan" to coordinate the development and implementation of 16 TMDLs to reduce (in order of Region 7's priority) silt, insoluble pesticides, selenium, soluble pesticides, nutrients, and bacteria in the waterways of the Salton Sea watershed. The TMDLs for nutrient loading are not scheduled for development until 2002, but should be given a higher priority to reflect the ecological problems associated with nutrient inputs into the Salton Sea.

  • Federal funding for the restoration plan should be contingent upon demonstrable benefit to the national interest.
  • Benefits to the public interest include, but are not limited to, protection of endangered species habitat, restoration of the National Wildlife Refuge, and meeting international obligations under treaties and multilateral environmental agreements, as well as improving the quality of life of people in the region.

  • Beneficiaries of transfers of Imperial Irrigation District water to the metropolitan areas of Southern California should internalize some of the costs associated with restoring the Sea.
  • Current and proposed water transfer agreements involving IID could exacerbate the concentration of salinity and other constituents in the Sea by reducing inflows. Parties to these transfer agreements should contribute an equitable share of the costs associated with restoring the Sea.

  • Address the likelihood that inflows to the Salton Sea will decrease substantially in the future.
  • The likelihood of significant reductions in the quantity of inflows to the Sea suggests that the chosen restoration plan must be sufficiently flexible to incorporate markedly different inflows and lake levels. Any restoration plan must account for and integrate planned water conservation efforts within the basin.

  • Exporting brine and contaminants to protected international ecological reserves in Mexico is not an acceptable solution.
  • Forcing other regions to bear the costs of the Salton Sea's problems is neither sustainable nor equitable. The majority of the restoration alternatives currently under consideration would export concentrated brine to sites outside the Salton basin, including Mexico's Colorado River Delta &emdash; Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve. Such pump-out schemes would not only have negative ecological effects, but most likely economic ones as well, potentially compromising the local shrimping and tourism industries in the region.

  • Colorado River surplus flows should not be diverted from the Colorado River delta to restore the Salton Sea.
  • Vestiges of the expansive wetlands that once characterized the Colorado River delta have re-emerged due to flood releases since the early 1980s. Today, the delta provides vital habitat for a broad array of flora and fauna, requiring little management and limited inputs beyond sporadic flood flows of Colorado River water. Proposals to divert Colorado River water into the Salton Sea would desiccate remaining high-quality habitat in the delta region.

  • Identify and fully integrate ongoing and planned efforts in the Salton basin that could impact the restoration of the Sea.
  • Numerous public agencies are conducting activities in the basin that have implications for the Salton Sea, but these efforts have yet to be fully integrated into the restoration process. In particular, the lead agencies should work with Regional Water Quality Control Board, Region 7, to implement their existing integrated basin plan. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation's efforts to reduce wasteful water use practices in the Imperial Valley should be formally integrated into the Salton Sea restoration process. To date, Reclamation has segregated its role as lead agency for the Restoration Project from its regulatory responsibilities to curtail inefficient agricultural water use in the basin.

  • Include all the affected stakeholders in and around the Salton basin.
  • The restoration process should include outreach to local communities. The Administration and Congress should also commit to a process whereby the settlement of the long-standing property claims of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians is given priority as a component of the restoration plan. Outreach efforts in Mexico and elsewhere that emphasize collaboration, rather than mere dissemination of information, will strengthen the restoration process and expand possible solutions.

  • Incorporate successes of similar regional restoration initiatives.
  • The CALFED Program provides a useful model for the Salton Sea Restoration Project, particularly in terms of its inclusive process. Many of the same federal and state agencies are active in both the Bay-Delta and the Salton Sea. Both initiatives seek to balance ecological and agricultural interests in a large-scale, potentially multi-billion dollar restoration effort, and both seek to implement long-term strategies. The CALFED program invests agricultural, environmental, and urban interests in the process - the Salton Sea Restoration Project should follow this example.


    Early this year, the lead agencies of the Salton Sea Restoration Project began incorporating several of the recommendations suggested by the Pacific Institute and other interested parties during and since the Scoping Phase of the restoration process. The Pacific Institute applauds these developments and encourages further changes that can lead to a more sustainable and equitable outcome for the region. We look forward to continuing to participate productively in the restoration process as it evolves.

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