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Water Efficiency Good for People,
Not Wildlife

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

State -mandated water conservation targets for Imperial Valley farms will likely worsen pollution in the Salton Sea.

A major push by the state Water Resources Control Board for more efficient irrigation has diminished seepage of fresh canal water and tainted drainage from crops. As the sea gradually shrinks, concentration of salt and trace elements are increasing.

"Water conservation is not always good for wildlife, " said Bill Radke, wildlife biologist for the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1988, the state water board decided the Imperial Irrigation District was wasting water by draining too much into the sea and ordered the nation's largest agricultural water supplier to cut back. The Imperial district in 1991 agreed to send 106,100 acre-feet of water a year to the Metropolitan Water District for thirsty cities in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas and MWD in return agreed to pay $220 million for conservation improvements. An acre foot is the amount needed to cover an acre with water a foot deep -- 326,000 gallons.

The precedent-setting deal marked the first rural-to-urban transfer of water in California and is widely viewed as a model for future trades in the fast-growing arid West. Opinion leaders such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Environmental Defense fund, a national environmental condition, hailed it as a "win-win" compromise for cities and farms.

But wildlife at the sea lost.

"It's a win-win deal for them, but it's not a win-win deal if you throw the Salton Sea in there," said Phil Gruenberg, executive director for the state Colorado River Basin Regional water Quality Control Board, the Salton Sea area water quality authority.

Transfer of 100,000 acre-feet of water will lower the sea by 2 feet and increase salt concentrations by about 10 percent over 35 years.

Transfer of 100,000 acre-feet of water will lower the sea by 2 feet and increase salt concentrations by about 10 percent over 35 years. Salinity would reach levels toxic for many fish about eight years faster. Selenium concentrations in the agricultural drains could triple as water formerly used for dilution is recycled.

And that is just the beginning.

The state water board has determined another 300,000 acre-feet of water could be saved in the Imperial Valley. As more people pack into Southern California cities, conservation orders approaching that amount are expected in the future.

"The impacts to the Salton Sea would be quite devastating," Gruenberg said.

The sea could become a death trap. Migratory birds will starve once salt kills off fish and increasing selenium concentrations inflict deformities on waterfowl, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Critics fault the state water board for issuing conflicting signals about the sea.

On the one hand, the water conservation targets will likely result in less water available to dilute pollutants in the drains. But on the other, the state board last year adopted standards for cleaner water in the drains. The confusing orders grow out of the dual nature of the agency, which establishes water rights and protects water quality in California.

Dan Frink, an attorney for the state water board, said conservation is paramount in a state suffering after six years of drought. Furthermore, the sea had to shrink because storms in 1983, coupled with agricultural runoff, swelled the sea and flooded shoreline property.

The position of the state board is that the decline of the Salton Sea is inevitable, so it makes little sense to waste freshwater on it that might be better used in urban areas, Frink explained.

"The downside of that is it will increase anyway," Frink said.

Critics, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Salton Sea Task Force, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local water agencies, fault the state board for giving up to easily.

"I'm not sure they've really given enough attention to the Salton Sea," said Maria Rea, chief of the water quality standards section for the U.S. EPA in San Francisco. "I think they are choosing not to address it in a direct way.

"...They need to say the Salton Sea is not a hopeless case, but there are ways that we can save some of those values. It takes state board leadership," Rea said.

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