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Officials Told to Hurry Salton Sea Solutions
A salinity-reduction plan to reduce fish and bird die-offs
is expected by Jan. 1.

By Onell R. Soto
The Press-Enterprise, September 29, 1999
Serving Riverside and San Bernadino Counties

WASHINGTON. Congress needs to see tangible solutions to saving the Salton Sea before legislators will allot the money to make it happen, one congressman said Tuesday, urging scientists to speed up their research.

Scientists trying to find ways to lower salinity in the sea say they could have a working version of an evaporative system by April. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, says that's too late.

Salton Sea officials have until Jan. 1 to propose a solution to the sea's increasing salinity, unstable surface levels and fish and bird die-offs.

Officials working on a restoration plan updated members of a Congressional task force on the Salton Sea on Tuesday.

The options under consideration include evaporation ponds, evaporation devices or building pipelines to export and import water to the Salton Sea.

The sea is saltier than the ocean, and salinity increases as water evaporates in the sea, leaving the salts behind.

Some steps to improve the health of the sea are already possible.

Scientists have agreed on some recommendations: increasing recreation to create more support for the sea, directing floodwaters to the sea, cleaning up the shoreline and establishing large-scale fishing of the sea.

The fish harvesting would help by removing extra nutrients, which feed algae blooms that deplete oxygen from the water and cause fish die-offs.

Levels of nutrients would drop if fish that otherwise would die and decay are instead used as fertilizer on nearby farms.

Officials are ready to put the recommendations into effect within the next year, said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, an inter-governmental group coordinating restoration efforts.

"Let's go out there and clean up the shoreline. These things don't need an environmental analysis," Kirk said. "These things will already be helping with the Salton Sea."

Scientists have proposed several ways of decreasing salinity of the sea. All involve removing water from the main body of the sea, to be replaced by less salty agricultural runoff and the New, Alamo and Whitewater rivers.

The most technological advanced proposal is a shower -- it would use Israeli technology to pump water to the top of a tower, where it would spray out in a mist. The water would evaporate, and salts and other solids would fall to the ground, where they would then be gathered for disposal.

Another approach would use the same technology that ski resorts use to make artificial snow, misting the water in the desert heat, allowing the salt and other solids to separate.

Because these options create solid waste, building a prototype has meant getting permits from California authorities, Kirk said. So he's not expecting to build a working version until April.

Hunter said that means results wouldn't come in time for members of Congress to get funding in the 2001 budget. He proposed getting some version of it built in a university laboratory.

Scientists figure that the amount of salt flowing into the sea in rivers and through agricultural runoff is equivalent to a train load a day.

"What is it going to cost you to extract a train load of salt?" Hunter said.

But forcing an answer now may lead to the wrong answer, said Evan Hirsche, director of the National Audubon Society's Wildlife Refuge Campaign.

"We shouldn't be looking at the clock," Hirsche said.

The Congressional task force on the Salton Sea includes Hunter, Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting.

The public will get a chance to evaluate proposals under consideration at meetings this fall. Kirk said he expects to deliver a final report with a recommended solution by the Jan. 1 deadline.

"We will meet that deadline," he said.

Onell R. Soto can be reached by e-mail at, by fax at (202) 478-0462, or by phone at (202) 246-9249.

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