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The Salton Sea

The environmental and economic values of this vast inland lake prompt local officials to launch a new restoration effort

Western Watern, Water Education Foundation, March/April 1994,pp.3-11
By Sue McClurg


Formed by the joint forces of man and nature nearly 90 years ago when the turbulent Colorado River breached the levee of an early irrigation diversion channel and flooded the low-lying desert of Imperial and Riverside counties, the Salton Sea's combined environmental and economic values are the catalyst for a present-day effort to save this vast inland sea.

Once California's largest fresh water lake, the 360-square mile Salton Sea today is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Without a natural outlet, water trapped more than 200 feet below sea level in this massive desert sink continually evaporates, increasing the salt content in the remaining water and threatening the sea's fishery. It is a natural process; one embodied in the highly saline Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea of the Middle East.

Coachella Valley farmland against the backdrop of the Salton Sea

It also is a phenomenon that occurred centuries ago to the intermittent body of water that pre-dates the Salton Sea. Long before the Imperial and Coachella valleys were settled by Europeans and the Colorado River was dammed, the river repeatedly changed course and flooded the inland area, forming vast lakes. The most recent body of water was named Ancient Lake Cahuilla after a tribe of local American Indians. Experts estimate this lake--twice the size of today's Salton Sea--took about 20 years to fill and about 60 years to evaporate under the hot desert sun. The legacy of this lake can be seen in the Imperial Valley today: the sand dunes, the shells, the "bathtub ring" high water mark on the Santa Rosa Mountains west of the Salton Sea.

"It's been commonly said that the Salton Sea is manmade, and that's partly true," said Bill Radke, a biologist with the U.S. fish and wildlife Service (USFWS). "But that's also like taking credit for the tide. The Salton Sea in one form or another has been here for a long, long time."

Under natural conditions the Salton Sea might well have evaporated by now, following the course set by Ancient Lake Cahuilla, if it weren't for artificial inflow from agricultural drainage, storm runoff and wastewater discharges from Mexico and California.

Yet in an ironic twist, this vital supply of water that empties to the sea--showing the rate of salinity increase and sustaining its wildlife--also causes problems. Salt, selenium and pesticides are carried into the sea with agricultural return flows, which originate largely from Imperial Valley farms.

Attention also has focused on the poor quality of water in the New River at the Mexico-California boundary, although there is some controversy over whether pollutants that originate in Mexico or California are the most threat to the sea itself and the wildlife of the area.

All these water quality problems threaten not only the sea's rich and diverse environmental resources, but the economics of Riverside (Coachella Valley) and Imperial (Imperial Valley) counties -- some of the most productive farmland in the world where agriculture is a $1 billion industry. Since the 1920s, the region's farmers have used the Salton Sea as a place to dispose of agricultural drain water, including water used to flush built-up salts from the soil. A disposal place for agricultural drainage is an essential element for continued crop production.

The sea also has proved to be tremendously attractive to birds, and the selenium in this drainage water could threaten the 380 species -- including six protected by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) -- known to live in or around the sea. A naturally occurring element, selenium is essential in small quantities but can become lethal at higher levels. The sea also is a critical link on the Pacific Flyway, with some species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty.

In addition, biologist fear the Salton Sea's water may soon become too salty for fish transplanted in the 1950s from the Gulf of California. For decades these species thrived and made the Salton Sea one of the most popular and productive fishing spots in California. Although tourism is only about half what it was in the 1960s, data compiled by the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG) estimates that in 1989, 450,000 people visited the sea, generating about $300 million for the regional economy.

Since the late 1960s, numerous studies have been conducted to determine how to reduce salinity in the Salton Sea and maintain its agricultural, environmental and recreational values. Yet for a variety of reasons, nothing has been done. One of the biggest obstacles is money. Most of the ideas to reduce salinity, improve the sea's water quality and save its fishery are multi-million-dollar projects. Who should pay the costs is one of the bottom-line dilemmas and illustrates another quandary: The sea's deterioration has failed to attract much attention outside Imperial and riverside counties. "The Salton Sea ins't a water supplier, and there's a small percentage of people directly affected by the sea so it's out of the ball game when it comes to water politics," said John Letey, associate director of California's Centers for Water and Wildland Resources. Local officials, however, believe the sea's health is a state, if not national, problem and deserves the attention and resources of Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

After years of neglect, it appears the local governments are ready to launch a more-extensive effort to stop the sea's deterioration. In 1993, the Imperial irrigation District (IID), Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the counties of Riverside and Imperial joined forces to create the Salton Sea Authority. The joint powers authority has a far-reaching mandate: to work with the state and federal governments in the development of programs to ensure continued beneficial uses of the Salton Sea.

"Creation of the Salton Sea Authority is the smartest thing you could have done," said Richard Engberg, who oversees the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Irrigation Water Quality Program. "Congress is definitely responsive to grass-roots efforts."

The federal government authorized spending $10 million for a Salton Sea water quality study in the 1992 omnibus water bill HR 429, best-known for the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. However, the state and /or local governments must match that funding, and the authority must decide which proposed idea for salinity reduction to study.

In January, more than 300 people attended the authority's one-day Salton Sea Symposium, a seminar designed to educate people about the sea's ecosystem, scientific studies of its problems, and some proposed solutions for stabilizing its salinity. This issue of Western Water recounts the history of the Salton Sea's formation, outlines the current environmental and economic issues, and explores options for reducing the sea's salinity.

Click for an Enlarged Map


Long before the 1905-19-7 flood, the Colorado River played an integral role in the creation of the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Through fossil and geologic research, scientists have determined that the Salton Sink was the bottom of a prehistoric sea, once connected to the Gulf of California.

Over a period of centuries, silt carried by the Colorado River as it carved some of the Southwest's most awe-inspiring gorges was deposited in the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys, forming a delta that closed off the basin from the Gulf of California. Today, this agricultural region rests on the sediment up to 12,000-feet thick. With less than 3 inches of annual rainfall, however, the fertile land is heavily dependent on the Colorado River for irrigation water.

As in 1905, flood flows periodically caused the Colorado to jump its banks and carve new channels, sometimes inundating the low-lying sink in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. As silt built up in these channels, the river would once again change direction and return toward the Gulf of California. The water left behind in the sink would slowly evaporate, leaving salt behind. Between the years 700 and 1580, at least four lakes formed in the Salton Sink area, which was then inhabited by American Indians.

During the 1849 Gold Rush, historians estimate 70,000 prospectors traveled through the desert on their way to the gold fields. Among these pioneers was Oliver Wozencraft, who recognized the possibility of irrigating the desert region with Colorado River water. Not until 1901, under the direction of Charles Rockwood and famed irrigationist George Chaffey, did the first Colorado River water arrive in the newly named "Imperial Valley" via the Alamo River. At the time, the Salton sink was dry. The introduction of irrigation water set off a land boom, and within eight months 2,000 settlers had arrived and 100,000 acres were ready for cultivation.

By 1905, the area's population had reached 14,000 and 120,000 acres of land were being farmed. But silt carried by the Colorado had blocked the intake of the Imperial Valley Canal during the winter of 1903-1904 and even as new bypasses were cut, these silted up, too. With farmers threatening $500,000 in claims and internal squabbling over the presidency of the California Development Co., a new and dangerous intake was cut four miles below the Mexico-California boundary in Mexico. Disaster struck -- high flows caused the Colorado River to jump its banks, flow down the Alamo River and then carve a new channel -- forming the New river -- and tear into the Imperial Valley, wiping out homes and farms.

These photos, circa 1906, show the power of the flood flows that formed the Salton Sea. Left, the flood washed out a portion of the Southern Pacific Railroad line between Los Angeles and Tucson. Below left, a failed effort to close the breach. (Click on pictures for larger images).

Despite numerous efforts to fill the breach, water poured down the Colorado and into the Salton sink for 16 months as the small breach in the diversion channel levee eventually widened to a mile. In 1907 the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., a major landowner which assumed the bankrupt California Development Co., finally closed the gap after a 52-day, around-the-clock effort in which 6,000 carloads of rock and gravel were deposited into the breach. Aided by silt carried by the still-swollen Colorado, a wide levee finally turned the river back toward the Gulf of California.

The flood wiped out towns ;and homes and thousands of acres of crops and left behind a vast body of water in the Salton Sink, about twice the size of today's sea. At the time of its formation, the sea essentially was a fresh water lake with a salinity level of about 3,550 parts per million (ppm). By 1954, the salinity in the sea had increased to about 32,000 ppm. Pacific Ocean water, in contrast, has a salt content of about 35,000 ppm while today's Salton Sea has a salinity level of about 45,000 ppm.

In its early days, the sea was inhabited by a number of fresh water fish species transported via Colorado River flood flows or introduced later. By 1916, according to DFG, carp, bonytail chub, razorback sucker, rainbow trout and striped mullet all lived in the sea. The sea also became an attractive stop for migratory waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway and a year-round nesting area for a number of other birds. In 1930, about 23,000 acres of the sea's southern end was designated the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. (The refuge was later expanded to about 35,000 acres.)

The dream of an agricultural empire in the inland desert was not destroyed by the 1905-1907 flood. The IID was formed in 1911, and in 1916, it acquired the rights to the irrigation system. By 1918, 360,000 acres of land were under production. Problems with canal maintenance and conflicts with the Mexican government over water rights, however, aroused a clamor for an "all-American" canal. By 1928, the same year Congress approved the All-American Canal (completed in 1938), more than 424,000 acres were being farmed. Drain water from these fields was lowing into the Salton Sea, which was officially declared a depository for agricultural drainage in 1924 and 1928.

The artificial inflow helped sustain the sea. But by 1929, the combination of evaporation and agricultural drainage water increased the sea's salinity, eliminating most of the fresh water fish species. DFG officials continued to try to maintain a fishery in the sea and between 1950 and 1956, 30 different species of fish from the Gulf of California were planted in the sea. Of these, orangemouth corvina, sargo and Gulf croaker thrived. By the 1960s, the Salton Sea had become one of the most productive fisheries in California. According to data compiled by DFG, between 1962 and 1972 Salton Sea anglers caught 5.3 orangemouth covina per trip. In contrast, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's acclaimed striped bass fishery had a 1.6 catch-per-angler ration from 1938 to 1977. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the most frequently caught fish was a fresh water species of tilapia native to Africa.

As recreation boomed, a number of waterside resorts were established and developers began promoting sea-front subdivisions. In the 1970s agricultural drainage, unusually high runoff from two tropical storms and increased inflow from Mexico caused the sea's elevation to rise faster than expected, inundating farmland, shrinking the wildlife refuge and washing out other shoreline development, including many of the resorts. The flooding problems generated the wrath of landowners around the sea, which attracted the attention of environmental groups and, ultimately, the state Water Resources Control Board (State Board). The issue? Whether IID was "wasting" water.

"It's been commonly said that the Salton Sea is manmade, and that's partly true. But that's also like taking credit for the tide."

-- Bill Radke, USFWS

Like all appropriative water rights holders, IID's rights to the Colorado River require that the water be put to "beneficial uses," and in 1984, the State Board concluded that IID's use of water was unreasonable under California law and constituted waste. IID appealed the decision, and in 1988, a superior court upheld the State Board's original ruling.

With southern California's growing cities facing a future of less-reliable water and IID using more than half the state's Colorado River entitlement, the push for water conservation in the Imperial Valley eventually was linked to a water transfer agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). After several years of negotiations, MWD and IID reached a historic water conservation/transfer agreement heralded by water users and environmentalist as a win-win program with few third-party impacts. (See Western Water July/August 1993).

Flooding again became a problem at the Salton Sea in the 1970's.

Yet as the Water Science Technology Board of the National Academy of Science pointed out in its 1992 report Water Transfers in the West: Efficiency, Equity, and the Environment, the "public environmental values associated with the Salton Sea" was one of three parties with the potential for third-party impacts. With the annual conservation and transfer of 106,110 acre-feet of Colorado River water from IID to MWD, various studies have indicated that the sea's elevation could become 2 feet to 6 feet lower than under natural conditions over the life of the 35-year agreement. This, in turn, would tend to cause the sea's salinity, already increasing about 1.2 percent a year, to increase at a greater rate.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) published a report in 1983 promoting an IID-MWD agreement and played an important role in urging the parties to cooperate. In their 1992 report, however, members of the Water and Science Technology Board's Committee on Western Water Management wrote that any future water transfer deals that impact the sea will receive "closer scrutiny" from environmental groups.

Current Issue 

The No. 1 water quality problem facing the sea is its rising salinity. Other problems outlined at the Salton Sea Authority's January conference included: high levels of selenium detected in agricultural drainage water and sediments at the bottom of the sea; pollution in the water inflow from Mexico; a decline in tourist dollars; the mysterious 1992 die-off of 150,000 eared grebes, a species of migratory water bird; and the continued problem of flooding caused by the sea's rising elevation.

The authority itself was formed after a 17-agency, state-led Salton Sea Task Force worked for several years to find a solution, but failed to generate much support or funding. "There now is a single agency that can create the deadlines and add the urgency to making a decision," said Carol Whiteside, director of intergovernmental affairs in the Wilson Administration. Whiteside, who served on the state task force in her former position as assistant secretary at the resources Agency, encouraged local officials form a joint powers authority.

Left, a brown pelican in an IID irrigation drain. The brown pelican is one of six birds protected by the Endangered Species Act found in and around the Salton Sea.

At first glance, public trust issues appear to be the driving force behind the current interest in restoring the Salton Sea. Upon closer examination, local officials, farmers and other residents appear to be concerned about both the sea's environmental problems and its economic benefits. (There also is some question whether the public trust would apply to the sea, see Page 8.) According to a 1993 press release, the authority's goal is to direct and coordinate actions that will improve the sea's water quality and stabilize its elevation while striving to protect endangered species, the fishery and waterfowl. The release further stated that the authority will "monitor the sea's primary purpose as a depository for agricultural drainage, stormwater and wastewater flows, while investigating ways to enhance the sea's potential."

On the economic side of the restoration equation, without someplace to dispose of drain water, irrigated agriculture would not exist on the scale that it does in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. But the sea's rising salinity, evidence that selenium may be a problem and its importance as a wildlife habitat threaten that billion-dollar industry. Imperial and Riverside counties, meanwhile, are wrestling with high unemployment rates and declining state revenues, and officials want to boost the sea's recreational and tourism income.

And even though environmentalists have not campaigned for the sea's restoration, it is possible protective measures could be required under the ESA or the Migratory Bird Treaty. Six birds are protected by the ESA: the Yuma clapper rail lives in the marshes surrounding the sea; brown pelicans, the least tern and Aleutian Canada goose often spend part of the year at the sea; and the bald eagle and peregrine falcon regularly are sighted at the refuge. The endangered desert pupfish, the area's only native fish species, can be found in the sea's shoreline pools, Salt and San Felipe creeks and is a world-renowned bird-watching location.

The lack of an easy solution is a major reason why nothing has been done to improve the sea. "It's a difficult situation where it's hard to find a win-win scenario for the Salton Sea and all the interested parties," said Craig Bell, executive director of the Western States Water Council.

Rising Salinity

It is no surprise that the Salton Sea's salinity level continues to rise -- it's a natural event officials forecasted long ago. The sea's artificial inflow contributes about 4 million tons of salt per year and the combination of inflow and evaporation have brought the sea to its current 45,000 ppm salinity level. In contrast, salinity levels in Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra are 100,000 ppm, in Utah's Great Salt Lake about 230,000 ppm and in the Dead Sea about 320,000 ppm.

Already, the Salton Sea's salinity content may have begun to impair the reproductive capabilities of its fish, and as salinity continues to rise, wildlife biologists believe the adult fish will begin to die. "We've had one of the most prolific fisheries in the world," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, told participants at the January symposium. "If we can't control the salinity level, we will lose the sea."

Although local residents and DFG officials decry the loss of the sea's fishery, it hasn't generated much outcry in other circles. "The fishery issue always struck me as less compelling because these were introduced species and it wasn't a natural ecosystem, " said Tom Graff, senior attorney at EDF and a major proponent of the IID-MWD agreement. " But to have an artificial ecosystem affect migratory birds, that strikes me as a bigger problem. "

Public Trust, Mono Lake and the Salton Sea

Like the Salton Sea, Mono Lake, located east of Yosemite Nation Park in the Sierra Nevada, is an isolated, saline body of water that provides important habitat for migratory waterfowl, other birds and wildlife.

But the two lakes couldn't be more different when it comes to environmental, legal and political issues.

Mono Lake is a natural body of water, fed by mountain streams. The Salton Sea is considered a manmade lake, and is fed by artificial inflow. Although neither lake has a natural outlet -- which causes salinity to increase as water evaporates -- water diversions by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) also caused Mono Lake's salinity to increase. And because the Salton Sea is considered a manmade body of water, legal experts doubt the public trust doctrine would apply to the sea.

Rooted in Roman law, the public trust doctrine holds that certain resources belong to all and thus are held in trust by the state for future generations. Since the 1970s, court ruling have expanded public trust to protect not only the traditional uses of navigation, commerce and fishing, but also ecological preservation, open space maintenance and scenic and wildlife preservation. In 1983, a landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court held that under the public trust doctrine, long-standing water rights could be subjected to reconsideration and possibly could be curtailed, if necessary, to protect the public trust.

The ruling occurred after the National Audubon Society joined with the Mono Lake Committee in a lawsuit against LADWP charging that the state of California, as supervisor of the public trust, was obligated to protect the lake against water diversions causing environmental damage.

Mono Lake

Since 1940, LADWP had diverted water from four of Mono Lake's five tributaries, causing the lake's level to drop and its salinity to increase. At one time, LADWP was diverting 85,000 acre-feet a year from these streams, about 14 percent of the city's water supply.

In December, LADWP and the Mono Lake Committee signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in which the parties agreed to a plan that could accelerate the city's ability to replace with reclaimed wastewater up to 35,000 acre-feet of water it has historically diverted from the Mono Lake Basin. The two parties agreed to apply for 50 percent matching funds from the state to develop this program. If the MOU is approved, about $36 million of the estimated $72 million water recycling and reuse program will be provided by state funds.

The State Water Resources Control Board, meanwhile, just completed its hearings on public trust issues and LADWP's right to divert water from the Mono Lake Basin. A decision whether to alter the long-standing water diversion rights to protect the public trust values of Mono Lake is expected later this year.


Scientists still aren't sure what caused 150,000 eared grebes to die at the sea in 1992. Die-offs among this migratory bird species are not unusual, and with an estimated population of 2 million, the bird is not a protected species. Although researchers ruled out selenium poisoning as the direct cause of death, high levels of selenium were found in the dead birds' tissue.

In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered an alarming rate of deformed waterfowl embryos at the San Joaquin Valley's Kesterson Reservoir, a wildlife refuge/evaporation pond for agricultural drainage, and determined the deformities were caused by selenium poisoning. The government subsequently closed Kesterson Reservoir, but high concentrations of selenium remain a concern at evaporation ponds in the San Joaquin Valley's Tulare County and at the Salton Sea.

A top crop in Imperial County, the 1992 lettuce harvest, right, generated nearly $63 million. However agricultural drainage from the region's fields flow into the Salton Sea, left. The flows contain seleniium, salts, and pesticides and threaten the sea's enviroonmental resources

"The Salton Sea is basically a giant evaporation pond," said Joseph Skorupa, a biologist for USFWS. "Although selenium is a required nutrient for animals, it has one of the narrowest tolerance margins between beneficial and toxic doses of any nutrient."

According to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board), Colorado River Basin Region, the concentration of selenium in the sea is about 1 to 2 parts per billion (ppb), well below the 5 ppb federal criteria for protection of aquatic life. However, tests conducted by the U.s. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1986 found high concentrations of selenium in agricultural drains and in the sediment at the bottom of the sea.

Of water samples taken from 12 sites in the sea, subsurface sumps or tile drains and the New and Alamo rivers, USGS hydrologist Jim Setmire said the highest selenium concentration, 200 ppb, was found in a subsurface sump. The sea had the lowest concentration, 1 ppb, with the median selenium concentration for the 12 water samples of 19 ppb 

Scientists believe some microbes use the selenium for energy, converting it to hydrogen selenide, which then dissipates as a gas. This removes selenium from the system and may help explain the low level of selenium in Salton Sea water. However, these microbes die and fall to the bottom of the sea. In the 1986 study, USGS data of sediments revealed a high selenium concentration of 3,300 ppb and a median concentration of 700 ppb and a median concentration of 700 ppb.

The sediment is the base of the Salton Sea's food chain. Pileworms and other invertebrates ingest the selenium-contaminated sediment and these creatures, in turn, are eaten by fish. DFG data from 1988 and 1989 showed fish filets with selenium concentrations of 2 ppm to 5 ppm (wet weight). Tests of bird-eating fish have found selenium concentrations several times higher, which, in turn, can cause chronic health and reproductive problems.

"To have an artificial ecosystem affect migratory birds strikes me as a bigger problem."

-- Tom Graff
Environmental Defense Fund

Animals higher up the food chain accumulate and concentrate selenium in their bodies, with fish-eating birds at most risk for selenium poisoning. Although the deformed bird embryos discovered at Kesterson received the most attention, USFWS biologist Skorupa said a greater problem with selenium poisoning is poor growth-rate for those birds that do hatch. At Kesterson, 88 percent of the mortality rate occurred to birds that had hatched.

The discovery of some deformed embryos at the Salton Sea earlier this year sparked concern that the deformities may be linked to selenium. To date, tests on eggs at the Salton Sea currently show a risk of selenium-caused embryo deformities, according to USFWS data, although selenium levels are not at the high toxicity levels of Kesterson or current evaporation ponds near Tulare. But the agricultural drainage water-to-egg selenium ratios for irrigation drainage entering the Salton Sea fall on the same regression line as data from Kesterson and the Tulare-area evaporation ponds -- leading experts to believe that is something isn't done, the continual loading of selenium to Salton Sea sediments could cause environmental problems similar to those at Kesterson.

Other Pollutants 

Even as local officials struggle to solve the Salton sea's rising salinity and avert potential problems with selenium poisoning, they also must contend with other water quality problems in the New River -- the flow that originates in Mexico and the flow from California.

Considered to be the most polluted waterway in the nation, the New River begins in Mexico and ends at the Salton Sea 60 miles away. At the international boundary, the New River's flow consists mainly of partially treated and raw sewage, agricultural drain water, pesticides, power plant effluent, detergents and a host of other industrial, municipal and agricultural chemicals.

In December, the Imperial County Board of supervisors filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demanding the agency test for chemical substances in the New River, determine their effects on public health and conduct a comprehensive health assessment of the river. Further, Imperial County officials urged the federal government to pursue a plan to resolve the international pollution problem under the newly enacted North American Free Trade Agreement.

Imperial county officials specifically identified the presence of DDT and toxaphene -- pesticides linked to cancer and banned in the U.S. for years -- as problems in the flow at the Mexico-California boundary. But regional Board authorities say residue on IID farmland, not Mexico forms, is the main source of DDT and toxaphene in the New River.

"Although no longer used in the Imperial Valley, DDT and toxaphene residues remain on cropland from former years of usage and enter drainageways, including the New River, via tailwater runoff during cropland irrigation," Regional Board Executive Officer Phil Gruenberg said in a Dec. 21 letter.

The letter from Gruenberg to IID -- with a copy to the EPA -- urged the irrigation district to accelerate its efforts to control discharge of these pesticides, and said the Regional Board, not federal agencies, has primary responsibility for regulating pollution problems from DDT and toxaphene.

Scientists have linked serious wildlife problems with DDT and its highly toxic residue DDE. Like selenium, DDT bioaccumulates in animals, with those higher up the food chain at greatest risk. DDT causes eggshell thinning, and studies at the Salton Sea have detected high levels of mortality of several birds because of DDT.

In a response from IID to the Regional Board, IID General Manager Charles Shreves said the district will use consultants to help develop a plan to control agricultural pesticides in its drains, to be completed in September 199r. Imperial Valley farmers are weighing a variety of treatment processes to remove pesticides from agricultural drainage water. However, farmers have balked at the expense of such systems. And in keeping with the complexity surrounding the sea's problems and proposed solutions, an IID desiltation demonstration basin now in operation near Holtville may remove pesticide-laden silt from drainage water, but may not reduce selenium concentrations.

In addition to pesticides and selenium, Regional Board officials say the Salton Sea also receives a huge input of nutrients as a result of fertilizers used in agriculture. The nutrients help support the sea's biological productivity -- including the sport fish -- but also cause plankton blooms, which in turn, may lead to odor problems.

Although the New River's flow at the Mexic0-California boundary is heavily polluted, many of these pollutants dissipate by the time the New River reaches the sea. There is some concern, however, that as the Mexicali Valley becomes more industrialized, water pollution could worse. Industrial chemicals have been detected at the border, and Regional Board officials say the presence of these chemicals indicates that there is a source of industrial discharge into the New River and what is today a minor problem may become a major problem.

Snow geese, above are among the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds
that winter at the Salton Sea, a critical link on the Pacific Flyway. 

Proposed Solutions

As officials tackle the water quality problems of farm runoff and polluted inflow from Mexico via the New river, the debate over how to reduce the sea's salinity level to that of ocean water continues -- especially when it comes to the question of who should foot the bill.

Great complexities and costs surround the proposed alternative to create an artificial outlet for the sea and reduce its salinity. After two decades of research two main alternatives remain under discussion: either pipe water from the sea 45 miles to Laguna Salada in Mexico (a sometimes dry lake bed near the northern edge of the Gulf of California), gradually reducing salinity levels; or, divide the existing sea through the use of dikes, concentrating salts in "dead" evaporation ponds and reducing salinity in the remainder of the sea. Some people have suggested building evaporation ponds adjacent to the sea to create solar energy.

"The Salton Sea isn't a water supplier, and there's a small percentage of people directly affected by it so it's out of the ball game when it comes to water politics."

--John Letey

University of California

If the sea were divided with dikes, it would essentially create a smaller area in which the fresher water from the artificial inflow would have a greater impact to offset rising salinity than with the current 360-square-mile basin. If the pipeline were constructed, saltier water piped out of the sea could be replaced with fresher agricultural drainage and/or even Colorado River water in years of high flows on that river.

Both these options and others studied through the years would, in effect, create an artificial outlet for the sea. If the sea had an outlet, it would gradually reduce the salinity of its waters.

In addition, the outlet might allow water officials to have greater control over the sea's elevation, which, in turn, could help prevent flooding problems.

Preliminary estimated construction cost of the evaporation ponds, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), is $188 millions, with annual operation and maintenance costs of $4 million. Several different scenarios of the pipeline alternative have been studied, including some that would remove water from the sea and replace it with water from the gulf, but the most conservative estimated construction cost of a system to convey 100,000 acre-feet of water a year, according to the bureau, is $95 million, with an estimated $5 million in annual operation costs. And such a project would require approval of the Mexican government.

All these estimates are preliminary and do not consider environmental and/or international issues. Nor would these solutions to salinity address selenium loading to the Salton Sea's sediment. Thus, the potential for selenium poisoning of wildlife at the sea would continue to be a threat unless it is removed from agricultural drainage flows.

Neither proposal has received widespread support among Riverside and Imperial counties' officials or residents. Such accord is vital in the view of Tom Levy, general manager of the CVWD. "Without a plan and without support at the local level there isn't going to be a solution," he said.

The Salton Sea problem is not an irrigation district or county problem. This is a problem for everyone."

-- Charles Shreves
Imperial Irrigation District

Shreves, general manager of IID, however, believes the crucial turning point may come by gaining environmentalists' interest -- especially when it comes to paying for whatever salinity solution is ultimately adopted. "We need to get the environmentalists to support it. If we don't get people like that to support it, nothing will happen," he said. "The Salton Sea problem is not an IID or CVWD problem or an Imperial County or Riverside County problem. It is a state problem because of all the people who come to visit the sea. It is an international problem because of the water flowing in from Mexico. This is a problem for everyone."

Like all appropriative water rights holders, IID's rights to the Colorado River require that the water be put to "beneficial uses," and in 1984, the State Board concluded that IID's use of water was unreasonable under California law and constituted waste. IID appealed the decision, and in 1988, a superior court upheld the State Board's original ruling.

But no one has stepped forward and offered to pay for whatever solution is selected. Officials have advanced a number of fund-raising ideas -- ranging from user fees for campers, boaters and fishermen; property assessments on the 23,000 landowners around the sea; a surcharge on desert landfills and hazardous waste sites; a tax on water conserved in the Imperial and Coachella valleys and transferred for use elsewhere; increases in irrigation water rates -- but none has been implemented.

While local agencies look to the state or federal government for money, these officials, in turn, look to the locals for leadership and at least a portion of the financing. "You need broad-based support and broad-based financing," Rep. McCandless told participants at the January conference. "You have created the base, now it's time to move ahead. There is money available in HR 429, but we need 50 percent cost sharing. We're ready to get involved but you have to have a viable project."

More than 300 people attended the Salton Sea Authority's January conference, inclluding State Water Boaard member John Brown, left.

As for the state government, which continues to struggle with a billion-dollar deficit, in-kind services may be easier to obtain than financing, said Carroll Hamon, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources. But Hamon, too said the new Salton Sea Authority must identify a plan. "I think your first hurdle is deciding what alternative you want to study; it's very difficult for us to talk about funding a study or providing matching funds without knowing what it is."

For USFWS biologist Radke, who formerly worked at the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge, resolution of the sea's environmental problems lies in man's willingness to sustain nature. "How much of this habitat that we covet for our own use are we willing to share with wildlife?" he asked participants at the January symposium. "I think we'll make the right decision, but we have to be a little less greedy and a little more innovative."

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