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Needed: A Sea Change

The Press-Enterprise, January 14, 1993

A fish-farming industry flourishes around the Salton Sea. But the commercial ponds filled with marketable fish are a natural attraction for the birds that come to the sea.

Nets could keep the birds away from the fish. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just lets the fish farmers shoot the birds. It's cheaper. More than 3,000 birds have been killed under these "depredation permits" since 1987.

The absurdity of this -- the government endorsing what amounts to baited traps at a national wildlife refuge -- seems lost on these stewards of the Salton Sea. It's just one measure of how far this important resource has been allowed to decline. Hopelessness is a catalyst for deterioration.

The desert sea, astride the Riverside-Imperial County border, is imperiled by sewage flowing into it from Mexico as the New river, by agricultural drainage, by rising salinity. The usual environmental coalition has not formed around an ugly duckling of a resource, and now a fix would be costly, the sea's so far gone. So it's ignored.

This was, and continues to be, a colossal error of judgment. It's not just a desert salt lake at stake. In a region where wetlands have been gobbled up by encroaching development, it is a critical oasis on a key wildfowl migration route.

Beyond that, it's a mistake because it will cost so much not to save the sea.

Left to become a barren toxic lake, it will remain a baited trap in the path of these birds. Drained, it raises the frightening specter of toxic desert sandstorms. Ignored, the problem won't go away.

Are we really so anxious to fight this battle one endangered egret or heron at a time? To refight the battle over the Stringfellow acid pits -- with money that might have helped fix things pouring instead into years of litigation? these are the lessons to be learned from, not examples to be emulated.

There are possible solutions. Some of them are, indeed, costly -- building a desalination plant, creating artificial wetlands, etc. But there are offsetting possibilities, too. The desalination plant could produce energy. Tourism stands to increase. And the solution can start small. It can start with canceling depredation permits, and requiring nets at the fishponds. It can start with just paying attention.

It will have to start soon, though. The Salton Sea won't be salvageable forever. The consolation prize -- one more expensive environmental lesson -- is nothing we should wish on ourselves.