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Salton Sea Assessment Scoping Comments

Pacific Institute for Studies in
Development, Environment, and Security

September 30, 1998

Summary

The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security has developed a set of eight guiding principles to inform the selection and implementation of an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable restoration plan for the Salton Sea. The Pacific Institute believes that the incorporation of these principles and recommendations will significantly improve the long-term efficacy of any future restoration effort. These principles were developed based on the belief that the Bureau of Reclamation/Salton Sea Authority assessment process is founded upon a set of narrow assumptions that limit the scope of the assessment, and will likely not achieve the stated objectives of the restoration. These guiding principles are intended to supplant the stated and implied assumptions guiding the Salton Sea restoration project to date. These principles are:

1. The primary goal of any restoration plan must be to provide for a healthy ecological system and protect human health.

2. Any restoration plan for the Salton Sea must address agricultural and industrial pollutants, in addition to increasing levels of salinity.

3. Parties responsible for the current problems facing the Salton Sea and beneficiaries of its restoration should bear an equitable share of the costs.

4. A restoration plan must be compatible with region-wide water conservation and voluntary reallocation programs, taking into account the likelihood that inflows to the Salton Sea will decrease substantially in the future.

5. Exporting brine or contaminants to Mexico or other locations without a comprehensive waste management strategy is not an acceptable solution.

6. Any restoration plan for the Salton Sea must be consistent with protection and restoration of the Colorado River delta and other ecosystems in the region.

7. Outstanding claims by the Native American communities in the Salton Sea basin should be resolved as a component of the restoration plan.

8. Federal support should be based on a sound scientific understanding of the ecology of the Salton Sea, including a comprehensive appraisal of the benefits and shortcomings of allowing the level of salinity at the Sea to increase unimpeded.

 

The Pacific Institute recommends that the scope of the Salton Sea Assessment be expanded to include:

  • the potential impacts of the chosen alternative on the full range of biota in and around the Salton Sea;
  • the short and long term economic benefits generated by restoration and preservation of quality habitat;
  • the potential impacts of exposing the bed of the Salton Sea and mechanisms for addressing these impacts;
  • the full range of factors affecting water quality;
  • the potential for including source reduction as a means of reducing pollutant inputs to the Salton Sea;
  • the short and long term economic benefits generated by stabilization of the Sea's elevation and improved aesthetics, and which stakeholders stand to capture such benefits;
  • the extent of local support for restoration of the Sea;
  • potential funding sources associated with each restoration alternative;
  • the likelihood that inflows to the Salton Sea will decrease substantially in the future;
  • the potential impacts of restoration on the historical extent of the Colorado River delta region as a whole;
  • a credible assessment of a "no action" alternative; and
  • a comprehensive assessment of addressing nutrient and selenium loading, but not salinity.

Introduction

The Pacific Institute writes in response to the notice in the June 26, 1998 Federal Register (63(123): 34926-34927), soliciting comments on scoping issues for the joint Bureau of Reclamation/ Salton Sea Authority assessment of alternatives for restoring the Salton Sea. This notice states that:

The objective of this effort is to evaluate alternatives (1) capable of maintaining the Sea as a reservoir of agricultural drainage, (2) provide a safe, productive environment for resident and migratory birds and endangered species, (3) restore recreational uses, (4) maintain a viable sport fishery, and (5) identify opportunities for economic development.

These comments address the specific objectives and assumptions of the Reclamation/ Authority assessment process, as described in the Federal Register and at the July 16 and July 17 public scoping meetings. They are organized within the general guiding principles listed above.

The Pacific Institute welcomes the current federal and state interest in resolving the problems confronting the Salton Sea. An objective, comprehensive assessment of the factors contributing to the high morbidity and mortality in the area will further understanding of the impacts of irrigated agriculture on fragile desert lacustrine ecosystems, and the interdependent biological and chemical processes at play in warm eutrophic hypersaline lakes. The process provides the opportunity for a careful assessment of the benefits and costs of restoration plans, ranging from not interfering with the natural tendency of the lake towards hypersalinity to implementing alternatives that explicitly protect particular ecological and/or economic values. The process also provides an opportunity for assessing responsibility for the Sea's current status and determining mechanisms, both within the Sea itself and in the surrounding region, for reducing harmful inputs to the Sea. However, the Pacific Institute is concerned by the reiterative nature of the assessment process and the fact that, despite the numerous public and agency comments on previous assessments (cf. Ogden 1996), the joint leads continue to focus on salinity and elevation while essentially ignoring nutrient and contaminant loading and source reduction plans.

Although the Salton Sea is effectively the result of human activity, it provides vital habitat for a broad range of species. The Salton Sea and its environs provide a complex mosaic of habitats, ranging from open water to estuaries to salt marsh to mud flats to riparian corridors, supporting extraordinarily high avian diversity in the basin. These habitats are especially vital given the destruction of wetlands throughout most of southern California and the lower San Joaquin Valley and in the limited Colorado River delta itself, which has markedly diminished the availability of stopovers for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

At one time the Sea attracted tens of thousands of visitors, but these numbers have dwindled as the rising Sea flooded resorts, and aesthetics were impaired by noxious odors and rafts of dead fish. The recreational potential of the Sea, including its ability to attract investment, is directly tied to the Sea's aesthetics, which in turn is affected by water quality considerations and the health of the Sea's ecosystem.

1. The primary goal of any restoration plan must be to provide for a healthy ecological system and protect human health.

The assessment's second objective, "provide a safe, productive environment for resident and migratory birds and endangered species," is too restrictive and should be expanded to include the health of the ecosystem as a whole, as well as human health. The health of the Salton Sea's ecosystem is essential to satisfy four of the five objectives listed in the Notice. The ecosystem is the critical link in the economic development of the region and must be explicitly recognized as such.

The restoration and preservation of the Salton Sea's ecosystem is important for three reasons: protecting endangered species and their habitat is a legally-recognized mandate; public support for federal intervention is contingent upon ecological preservation; and ecological preservation is a necessary component of recreation-based growth. The Endangered Species Act clearly ascribes the highest priority to preserving and protecting endangered species such as the desert pupfish and the Yuma Clapper Rail. Furthermore, the Sea's ecosystem is the sole factor enabling discussion of federal economic intervention in and around the Sea. The prospect of federal subsidies for economic development in the area would be negligible, if it were not for the discussion of concurrent environmental preservation and restoration. It was the reports of massive fish kills and bird die-offs that initially captured the public's interest in the Salton Sea. The ecological health of the Salton Sea is also the foundation for economic growth in the area and must be addressed: the marked decline of recreation in the region was at least partially due to decreasing aesthetics caused by widespread fish kills and noxious odors.

To be successful, a restoration plan must address the totality of ecosystem health, paying particular attention to potential impacts and the survival parameters of baseline species. The Salton Sea ecosystem is artificial and lacking in diversity at lower trophic levels, making it especially vulnerable to catastrophic change. The Salton Sea is characterized by large populations, short foodchains, and frequent mortality events (Setmire et al. 1993). Many of the species inhabiting the Sea and its environs are non-native. This ad hoc ecosystem is in a state of rough dynamic equilibrium, disturbed by the fluctuating levels of salinity and nutrient loads. The lack of biodiversity at lower trophic levels leaves the Salton Sea ecosystem especially vulnerable to severe disruptions should the population of one species, such as pileworms, crash due to external pressures such as anoxia or disease. Such a population crash would have repercussions throughout the ecosystem (Setmire et al. 1993). The loss of this critical common link in the Sea's simple foodchains would presage widespread losses within many of the Sea's fish and avian populations.

Human Health

The restoration plan for the Salton Sea should carefully address both direct and indirect impacts to human health in the region. California's Health Advisory Board has issued a warning stating that people should not consume more than four ounces of fish caught in the Salton Sea in any two week period, due to elevated selenium levels in Salton Sea fish (Ogden 1996). Additionally, the expected lowering of the surface of the Salton Sea will expose tens of thousands of acres of lakebed, potentially dispersing large quantities of airborne pollutants and threatening human health and agriculture in the region.

One of the stated objectives of the Bureau/Authority restoration plan is to reduce the elevation of the Salton Sea to between &endash;230 and &endash;235 feet mean sea level (msl). Absent levees or dikes, this would result in the exposure of between 8,500 and 21,500 acres of presently inundated lakebed. According to models generated by the University of Redlands (1998), if inflows to the Salton Sea are reduced from their present level of 1.34 million acre-feet (maf)/year to 1 maf/year, the level of the Sea would stabilize at &endash;242 feet msl, exposing 41,400 acres of lakebed. If inflows are reduced to 800,000 af, the lake level would eventually stabilize at &endash;251 feet msl, exposing 73,600 acres of lakebed, disproportionately on the southern end of the Sea, closer to the major population centers of the Imperial Valley.

Lakebed exposure can have deleterious effects on local and regional populations, due to the aerial dispersion of particulate matter and contaminants such as selenium that may be contained in the surface layers of the lakebed. Aerial dispersion of salts would also negatively impact agriculture in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. There are several examples of the significant human health and economic costs associated with lakebed exposure that bear directly on the Salton Sea. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) recently reached an agreement with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to release water back into the presently dry Owens Lake, in an effort to reduce the dust pollution (as much as eleven tons/day) that periodically swirls off the lakebed, causing a variety of respiratory ailments. The agreement may cost the LA DWP $120 million and 40,000 acre-feet of water per year. The Aral Sea and Mono Lake have also experienced significant problems arising from the exposure of hypersaline lakebed, as windblown salts and dust have adversely affected human and animal populations (Postel 1993). Some 70 percent of the human population near the Aral Sea report health problems associated with the annual airborne dispersion of an estimated 40-150 million tons of salt and dust from the dried, exposed bed of the Aral Sea (Saiki 1990).

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • the potential impacts on the full range of biota in and around the Salton Sea;
  • the short and long term economic benefits generated by restoration and preservation of quality habitat; and
  • the potential impacts of exposing the bed of the Salton Sea and mechanisms for addressing these impacts.

2. Any restoration plan for the Salton Sea must address agricultural and industrial pollutants, in addition to increasing levels of salinity.

The Reclamation/Authority restoration assessment is predicated on the erroneous assumption that the Sea's hypersalinity is primarily responsible for the elevated bird and fish morbidity and mortality rates at the Salton Sea. According to many sources, including the Salton Sea Authority itself (1997, 42-43), nutrient and contaminant loading are the primary factors responsible for the widespread fish kills common at the Salton Sea (see also Ogden 1996, 7; Setmire et al. 1993). To have any chance of success, the assessment process must be expanded to capture the full range of pollutants impacting life in the Sea. Permitting the Sea to remain eutrophic, with increasing concentrations of selenium, pesticide residues, and other contaminants, will undermine and eventually abort efforts to reinvigorate its ecological health, as well as its recreational potential. Reducing the Sea's salinity without addressing the factors causing the current crises will prevent any restoration effort from achieving all but the first of the project's stated objectives.

Water Quality

There are three major water quality considerations at the Salton Sea: salinity, nutrient loading, and selenium.1 Of these, attention has primarily focused on salinity to date. However, in addition to approximately 4 million tons of dissolved salts, annual inflows to the Salton Sea carry high concentrations of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, variable levels of selenium and other metals, and pesticide residues and other contaminants. As water evaporates, salts, nutrients, and other contaminants are concentrated in the Sea and its sediment.

1 The presence of pesticides and other contaminants in the Sea is also of concern, but these factors do not appear to have the short-term potential for system-wide impacts demonstrated by the three major factors.

Nutrient Loading

Nutrient loading refers here to the quantities of nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and phosphates present in inflows to the Salton Sea. The correlation between nutrient levels and algal biomass is well documented (cf. Lathrop and Carpenter 1992; Schindler 1977; Vollenweider 1968). The concentration of nutrients generates periodic algal blooms, which in turn diminish concentrations of dissolved oxygen (DO), killing fish (Lathrop 1992). Nutrient loading may also lead to the growth of phytoplankton species that are toxic to fish (FWS 1997). Nutrient loading also generates anaerobic conditions, which are associated with the release of noxious hydrogen sulfide gas, reducing aesthetic and recreational values.

Nutrient loading is a direct result of agricultural activities, especially the excessive application of fertilizers. As part of the assessment process, Reclamation and the Authority should investigate fertilizer use in the Salton Sea watershed and potential mechanisms for encouraging farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer applied to fields.

Selenium

Selenium toxicity can lead to reproductive failure, deformities, and death. Selenium toxicity is not yet a major concern at the Salton Sea (Setmire et al. 1990), but continuing inputs of selenium into the system threaten to create a repeat of the widespread selenium toxicity that occurred at California's Kesterson Wildlife Reserve, which, like the Salton Sea, is a designated repository for agricultural drainage. Setmire et al. (1993) describe the Salton Sea as a selenium sink, because the presence of selenium in the Sea's water is much lower than in its tributaries and the surrounding agricultural fields. It appears that selenium is removed from the water column and concentrated in the Sea's sediments, probably by selenate-respiring bacteria (Setmire et al. 1993). Thus, even in the absence of additional selenium inflows, selenium within the sediment of the Sea would continue to enter the food chain for years to come (Setmire et al. 1993).

The danger of selenium loading is that selenium levels will continue to increase in the Sea's sediments and bioaccumulate in animal tissues. Elevated levels of selenium are responsible for an estimated four percent reduction in the reproductive success of Black-Necked Stilts at the Sea (Setmire et al. 1990). Jim Setmire, of the USGS, is presently leading a pilot study to determine the potential for anaerobic filtration of drainage waters to reduce the amount of selenium entering the Sea, although this still leaves the problem of disposing of selenium-rich residues. This work should be encouraged and supported as part of the restoration process, and other methods to reduce selenium loading at the Salton Sea should also be supported in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the Kesterson tragedy.

Other Contaminants

Other contaminants that enter the Salton Sea include pesticide residues, such as DDE, trace amounts of PCBs, and heavy metals such as arsenic. Pesticide residues wash off agricultural fields in the Coachella, Imperial, and Mexicali Valleys and eventually into the Sea, where, like selenium, they tend to bioaccumulate (Ogden 1996). High levels of DDT residues have been detected in some birds at the Salton Sea, particularly in birds that feed on invertebrates in agricultural fields (Setmire et al. 1993). Pesticide residues in the Sea have not been detected at levels of concern (Setmire et al. 1993). However, little research has been done on the existence or impacts of pesticide residues or other contaminants at the Salton Sea (FWS 1997). This research gap should be addressed.

Water Temperature

The temperature of the Salton Sea is a water quality parameter that affects many of the species in the Sea and should be recognized as part of the assessment process. Because the Sea is a relatively broad and shallow body of water, it is especially sensitive to changes in air temperature. Water temperature is inversely correlated with DO concentrations, exacerbating fish kills in hot summer months, particularly given the Sea's eutrophic conditions. The range of water temperatures in the Sea is inversely correlated with the size of the Sea, suggesting that fluctuations will become more extreme as the Sea shrinks due to reduced inflows in coming years. The assessment process therefore should recognize and assess the potential for increased fluctuation of water temperature at the Sea as its volume is reduced, particularly if portions of the Sea are impounded within dikes.

Salinity

The Feasibility Study's focus on addressing the salinity of the Salton Sea distracts from other factors compromising life at the Sea. The Sea's hypersalinity is not a new issue. Due to evaporation, by 1918 the Salton Sea's salinity already approximated that of the ocean, and continued to increase to roughly 40,000 ppm by 1925 (Hely et al. 1966). During the Great Depression, in response to a decrease in inflows from agricultural drainage, the salinity of the Sea rose to 43,000 ppm, approximately its current level (Littlefield 1966). Hypersalinity is a chronic feature of the Salton Sea, one only indirectly implicated in the threats to the Sea's ecosystem and economic redevelopment. Elaborate, expensive schemes to reduce the salinity of the Salton Sea will not markedly reduce morbidity or mortality, will not increase recreational usage of the Sea, and will not spur economic development in the region. Absent efforts to address other water quality concerns, the salinity reduction schemes under consideration by the joint leads will not achieve the project's stated objectives.

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • the full range of factors affecting water quality; and
  • the potential for source reduction as a means of reducing pollutant inputs to the Salton Sea.

3. Parties responsible for the current problems facing the Salton Sea and beneficiaries of its restoration should bear an equitable share of the costs of restoration.

Much of the current crisis at the Salton Sea can be attributed to human action, especially the intensive use of water in the Imperial Valley and the unregulated application of fertilizers in the region. To great extent, these actions have been encouraged by market forces, most notably the heavily-subsidized net cost of water to IID farmers and by their ability to externalize the costs of excessive fertilizer and pesticide use, costs subsequently borne by the environment in general and the Sea in particular. It is not cost-effective or in the best interests of U.S. taxpayers to finance symptomatic, end-of-pipe fixes when source reduction efforts offer the potential for greater efficiency and efficacy.

The restoration of the Salton Sea will benefit landowners around the Sea, and will likely generate secondary benefits in the form of additional demand for services (Bazdarich 1998). Stabilization of the Sea also benefits the IID and local farmers, by reducing their exposure to litigation arising from inundation of lakefront property. The vital habitat offered by the Salton Sea represents an interest to the nation, generating preservation and existence values. Each of these beneficiaries &endash; local landowners, the IID and Imperial Valley agriculture, and the nation as a whole &endash; stands to benefit from some aspect of preservation or restoration of the Sea, though these benefits may not always be compatible. The scope of the assessment should recognize the scale of benefits accruing to each sector and should identify a reasonable mechanism for sharing the costs equitably.

Bazdarich (1998, 18) suggests levying "substantial transfer-, sale-, and improvement-taxes on Sea property" as a means of funding the restoration of the Sea. Such an approach is appealing because those benefiting from restoration share in its costs. However, such a property tax-based funding scheme requires a significant increase in the quantity and desirability of developed real estate, which in turn could generate significant environmental impacts.

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • the short and long term economic benefits generated by stabilization of the Sea's elevation and improved aesthetics, and which stakeholders stand to capture such benefits;
  • the extent of local support for restoration of the Sea; and
  • potential funding sources associated with each restoration alternative.

4. A solution must be compatible with region-wide water conservation and voluntary reallocation schemes, taking into account the likelihood that inflows to the Salton Sea will decrease substantially in the future.

Current inflows to the Salton Sea average approximately 1.34 maf/year. Several factors indicate that this figure will decrease significantly in the future, a likelihood that should be integrated into the assessment process. The timing of these flow reductions is difficult to predict accurately, adding additional uncertainty to the planning process. This uncertainty and the reasonable assuredness of significant reductions in the quantity of inflows argue against the implementation of any restoration plan that depends upon a large-scale infrastructure or other construction that lacks the flexibility to respond to markedly different inflows and concomitant lake levels.

A major factor that will reduce inflows to the Salton Sea is the recently signed agreement between the San Diego County Water Authority and IID, enabling the former to divert up to 200,000 af/year of water conserved by IID. This conservation-based agreement augments the conservation measures implemented by a 1989 IID conservation agreement with MWD, which save 106,000 af/year. It was estimated that the 1989 conservation measures and the resultant decrease of inflows would lower the surface elevation of the Salton Sea by two feet (NRC 1992). However, due to an increase in double-cropping in the Imperial Valley, total consumptive use by the IID actually increased since the implementation of the water conservation agreement and the surface elevation of the Salton Sea rose by a foot between 1989 and 1995.

The pressure by the Secretary of the Interior and the other Compact states to encourage California to reduce its consumption of Colorado River water to its entitlement of 4.4 maf/year will also reduce inflows to the Sea. It is quite likely that IID's consumptive use will decrease to the levels seen in the early-to-mid 1980s, a reduction of more than 300,000 af/year from current levels, with a concomitant decrease in flows to the Sea.

Additionally, inflows to the Sea originating from Mexico are expected to decrease in coming years. Presently, approximately ten percent of inflows to the Salton Sea originate in Mexico, of which roughly seventy-five percent is agricultural drainage and the remainder is municipal and industrial effluent. Through a partnership with the US EPA, Mexicali is presently in the process of constructing a wastewater treatment plant to address the limited capacity of its current system. It is expected that treated wastewater will be diverted before it reaches the border, decreasing total flows from Mexico by as much as 35,000 acre-feet per year (McNaughton, 1998, personal communication). Further reductions in flows from Mexico are likely as conservation measures in the Imperial Valley, particularly the lining of the All-American Canal, limit the amount of groundwater seepage subsequently pumped in the Mexicali Valley and returned to the Sea as agricultural drainage.

Thus, at some indeterminate time in the near future, inflows to the Salton Sea will likely drop below one maf/year, and potentially may decrease to 800,000 af/year or less. At these levels of inflow, the Sea would eventually stabilize at an elevation fifteen to twenty-four feet below its current level, significantly reducing the length of shoreline and volume of the Sea (Redlands 1998). The gradual decrease in elevation due to these various factors would challenge efforts to develop shorefront properties. Impacts on ecological systems are more difficult to predict and should be thoroughly assessed.

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • the likelihood that inflows to the Salton Sea will decrease substantially in the future.

5. Exporting brine or contaminants to Mexico or other locations without a comprehensive waste management strategy is not an acceptable solution.

The restoration of the Salton Sea should not be accomplished by compromising the ecological and/or human health of other areas. Beyond the very real questions of environmental justice, any plan that would include international conveyance of brine or seawater would encounter enormous institutional obstacles, and should be avoided. The crises at the Salton Sea should ideally be addressed within the basin itself.

Alternatives that would pump out brine to outlying areas within the Salton Sea basin must include a comprehensive strategy for properly managing and disposing of brine and other contaminants. The problems of the Salton Sea should not be simply exported out of sight in the hopes that they will cease to exist. Any such pump-out plan should carefully manage the resultant brine and contaminant residues to ensure that they do not harm the site or surrounding area. Forcing others to bear the costs of problems caused primarily by agriculture in the Imperial Valley is neither sustainable nor equitable.

6. Any restoration plan for the Salton Sea must be compatible with protection and restoration of the Colorado River delta and other ecosystems in the region.

The Salton Sea must be addressed from a regional, ecosystem basis that includes potential impacts on the Colorado River delta. Hydrologically, the Salton Basin formed part of the Colorado River delta. Historically, an important and persistent feature in the delta region was the extensive wetlands of the Colorado River Delta (Leopold 1966). It is ironic that parts of the Salton Basin are being flooded with Colorado River water at the same time that the ecologically critical delta region is threatened by a lack of water.

The Feasibility Study should explicitly link the Salton Sea to the present extent of the Colorado River delta and with the threatened ecosystem in the Upper Gulf of California, particularly given the proposal to divert surplus flows from the Colorado River into the Salton Sea. It must be clearly understood that the Colorado River delta and the upper gulf ecosystem depend on such flows for their continued existence. Surplus flows during the mid-1980s created a riparian zone along the Colorado River through the delta region, comprising approximately 60,000 hectares (Glenn 1998). The upper gulf supports high biodiversity, with many of the species found nowhere else (Anderson 1998). Additionally, recent studies (Glenn 1998) suggest that surplus flows down the Colorado River are a critical factor for the success of the shrimp fishery in the region. The Colorado River delta is a sustainable ecosystem, requiring only limited inflows of Colorado River water, and should not be sacrificed to preserve the Salton Sea.

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • the potential impacts of restoration on the historical extent of the Colorado River delta region as a whole.

7. Outstanding claims by the Native American communities in the Salton Sea basin should be resolved as a component of the solution.

In 1909, the U.S. Department of Interior reserved in trust 10,000 acres of land for the Torres-Marinez Band which had been inundated by the Sea as a result of the Colorado River flooding in 1905-06. This added to their existing reservation, much of which had also been inundated by the flooding. It was presumed at the time that the Sea would evaporate in about 14 years and the land could be reclaimed and farmed. However, by 1920, it was clear that the irrigation drainage water from the Imperial Valley was going to sustain the Sea and the Tribe's land would continue to be inundated.

The Administration and Congress should commit to a process whereby the settlement of the long-standing property claims of the Torres-Martinez is given priority and resolved in the next Congress. No solution to the Salton Sea problem is equitable or can be considered comprehensive without a just settlement of the Torres-Martinez tribe's long-standing loss of the beneficial use of their trust lands.

8. Federal intervention should be based on a sound scientific understanding of the ecology of the Salton Sea, including a comprehensive appraisal of the benefits and shortcomings of allowing the level of salinity at the Sea to increase unimpeded.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Saving the Salton Sea: A Research Needs Assessment, October 1997, demonstrates the number and magnitude of gaps in the understanding of the basic ecology of the Salton Sea. The scientific research sponsored by the Research Subcommittee should guide the assessment and implementation of a restoration plan. The current process, in which scientific research and the suitability assessment occur simultaneously, strongly suggests that the present process favors a quick solution to the crisis, even if concurrent research indicates that the chosen solution will not work. The assessment and restoration of the Salton Sea should be founded upon a clear understanding of the Sea's ecology.

This research is required to promote an understanding of a "no action" alternative, itself a necessary baseline (required by law) for the assessment process. Without a clear understanding of the current condition of the Sea and sound predictions of what conditions will be like in the near and distant future, the joint leads can not reasonably expect to achieve their stated objectives. A "no action" alternative should include a credible appraisal of the costs and benefits of allowing the Sea to continue on its present course, and would identify affected stakeholders of that outcome.

It is ironic that the restoration process seeks to reverse salinization, the most natural process at the Sea, while effectively ignoring the anthropogenic factors implicated in the current crisis. Given the natural tendency of terminal desert lakes to evaporate, the implications of significant seismic activity of the region for infrastructure development, and the extremely high costs associated with restoration, the scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include a comprehensive assessment of a restoration alternative that addresses nutrient and selenium loading while allowing the Sea to become naturally more saline. Such an alternative could complement restoration efforts focused in other areas of the Colorado River delta that offer greater long-term sustainability.

The notion that the Sea will "die" once salinity reaches a certain threshold, now thought to be roughly 50,000 ppm, imposes a false sense of urgency on the restoration process. It is clear that productivity of the Sea's fishery will be constrained by hypersaline conditions, although when this will occur is not fully understood (FWS 1997). The Sea itself, however, would continue to be very much alive even with the loss of its fishery. Both Mono Lake, with a salinity of approximately 100,000 ppm, and the Great Salt Lake, with a salinity of 230,000 ppm, support tremendous populations of brine flies and brine shrimp, which in turn support large populations and diversity of bird species. The greatest danger is that rising levels of salinity would extirpate species that provide food for fish-eating birds, such as the endangered brown pelican. Rising levels of salinity are not a systemic problem, but they would have potentially significant impacts on certain elements of the Salton Sea ecosystem. Although the Pacific Institute does not specifically endorse allowing the salinity of the Salton Sea to continue to increase unimpeded, we recommend that this alternative be thoroughly investigated. The potential magnitude of the costs associated with an infrastructure-based restoration underscores the importance of determining whether the Salton Sea or some other location would be best served by such efforts.

The scope of the Feasibility Study should be expanded to include:

  • a credible assessment of a "no action" alternative; and
  • a comprehensive assessment of addressing nutrient and selenium loading, but not salinity.

 

References

Anderson, Dan. 1998. Morning Session remarks, in Workshop Proceedings: Water and Environmental Issues of the Colorado River Border Region: A Roundtable Workshop. J. I. Morrison and M. Cohen (eds.). Sponsored by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security and Defenders of Wildlife.

Bazdarich, Michael. 1998. An economic analysis of the benefits of rehabilitating the Salton Sea. Inland Empire Economic Databank and Forecasting Center, University of California at Riverside, 19 pp.

Glenn, Edward. 1998. Afternoon Session remarks, in Workshop Proceedings: Water and Environmental Issues of the Colorado River Border Region: A Roundtable Workshop. J. I. Morrison and M. Cohen (eds.). Sponsored by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security and Defenders of Wildlife.

Hely, A.G., G.H. Hughes, and B. Irelan. 1966. Hydrologic regimen of Salton Sea, California. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Paper 486-C. 32 pp.

Lathrop, Richard C. 1992. "Nutrient loadings, lake nutrients, and water clarity," in J.F. Kitchell (ed.), Food Web Management: A Case Study of Lake Mendota. NY: Springer-Verlag, pp. 69-96.

Lathrop, Richard C., and Stephen R. Carpenter. 1992. "Phytoplankton and their relationship to nutrients," in J.F. Kitchell (ed.), Food Web Management: A Case Study of Lake Mendota. NY: Springer-Verlag, pp. 97-126.

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation From Round River. New York: Oxford University Press.

Littlefield, W.M. 1966. Hydrology and physiography of the Salton Sea, California: U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Investigations Atlas HA 222, scale 1:125,000, 1 oversize sheet.

McNaughton, Eugenia. 1998. Environmental Scientist, Border Team, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Water Division, Region IX. Personal communication, April 29, San Lu's R'o Colorado, Mexico.

National Research Council (NRC). 1992. Water Transfers in the West: Efficiency, Equity, and the Environment. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

Ogden Environmental and Energy Services Co., Inc. (Ogden). 1996. Salton Sea Management Project Evaluation of Salinity and Elevation Management Alternatives. San Diego, California. 123 pp., plus appendices.

Postel, Sandra. 1993. Water and Agriculture. In Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Freshwater Resources, ed. P. Gleick, pp. 56-66. NY: Oxford University Press.

University of Redlands (Redlands). 1998. Poster presentation at Bureau of Reclamation/ Salton Sea Authority public scoping meetings, July 16, La Quinta, California.

Saiki, Michael K. 1990. Elemental concentrations in fishes from the Salton Sea, southeastern California. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 52(1-2): 41-56.

Salton Sea Authority, California Department of Water Resources, and Bureau of Reclamation. 1997. Salton Sea Area Study: Alternative Evaluation Appraisal Report: Final Draft. Prepared by Lower Colorado Region, Bureau of Reclamation. September.

Schindler, D. W. 1977. Evolution of phosphorus limitation in lakes. Science 195: 260-262.

Setmire, James G., Wolfe, John C., and Stroud, Richard K. 1990. Reconnaissance investigation of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the Salton Sea area, California, 1986-87: U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Investigations Report 89-4102, 68 pp.

Setmire, James G., Schroeder, Roy A., Densmore, Jill N., Goodbred, Steven L., Audet, Daniel J., and Radke, William R. 1993. Detailed study of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the Salton Sea area, California, 1988-90. U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Investigations Report 93-4014, 102 pp.

U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). 1997. Saving the Salton Sea: A Research Needs Assessment. October. 96 pp.

Vollenweider, R. A. 1968. Scientific fundamentals of the eutrophication of lakes and flowing waters, with particular reference to nitrogen and phosphorus as factors in eutrophication. OECD Rep. No. DAS/CSI/68.27.


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