Salton Sea Countdown to Collapse

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Facing Facts at the Salton Sea

The Press-Enterprise, January 13, 1993

The desert has never gotten its due. The fallacy that it is empty, that it is lifeless, seems nearly indestructible. The names on its landscape -- Ward Valley, Eagle Mountain, etc. -- become synonyms for dumps. It is not, and never has been, a user-friendly environment; people have repaid its hostility with scorn.

For this reason, and a lot of others that dovetail to pernicious effect, another name on the desert landscape -- Salton Sea -- is becoming synonymous with ecological disaster.

For years, as the recent series in this newspaper made clear, the alarm bells have been rings at the state's largest inland body of water, astride the Riverside-Imperial County line. Yet no one has come running.

What remains unappreciated is that this is not just another case of an endangered species or a Superfund cleanup: It's a case of systemic collapse. The sea is under the strain of chemical contamination and rising salinity and unfiltered sewage. All this ultimately threatens the thousands upon thousands of birds in residence or transit along the entire Pacific Flyway. The sea has been a national wildlife refuge since 1930, and yet it's being allowed to die a quiet, lonely death.

Agricultural interests aren't bothered. Preserving irrigation, even at the sea's expense, is their concern. Water interest, concern about supply and potential liabilities, are agriculture's allies.

The Salton Sea hasn't even won broad sympathy among environmentalist, because it has not always been there. Some centuries, by accident of nature or man, it has existed. Many others, it has not. But in those former times, it was an expendable element of the flyway. That's no longer true. With more than 90 percent of this state's wetlands gone -- plowed, paved, built up -- it has become a critical oasis on this international flight path.

Some experts believe the sea is actually beyond saving. The magnitude of the potential loss argues for an effort to save it.

First, facts should be faced. the purpose of the sea, as one farmer put it, is not merely "to receive agricultural drainage." it out to be regarded as ludicrous that federal biologists are counting crushed, defective egret eggs while the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation denies there's a problem. Decisions on the sea's future are too important not to be born of reality.

Beyond that, the sea's problems need to be recognized for what they are -- an urgent matter of standing interest. Riverside and imperial counties have had talks about creating a joint authority to oversee what is after all, an economic asset too. This should be pursued. The sea's case won't be advanced without an advocate. Nor will it be advanced without heightened federal interest in persuading Mexico to clean up the polluted New river, as we've discussed previously.

Looking the other way was so much easier. Now it's high time at the Salton Sea to face reality instead.