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This story refers to a preliminary draft of a report, the final draft, signed by 161 biologists knowledgeable about the Salton Sea, may be found at Note that none of the critics the reporter spoke with identified any errors in even the draft report."
Salton Sea Expert Pans US Filter Plan

Supports Say Regardless of His Criticism, Further Study is Warranted

By Benjamin Spillman*
The Desert Sun, December 23, 2002

   A noted expert on Salton Sea biology has issued a stinging critique of a proposal to recreate the troubled lake. 

San Diego State University biologist Stuart H. Hurlbert said a proposal by USFilter Corp. of Palm Desert to squeeze drinking water from the sea while preserving much of its habitat "has no redeeming features."

 But Hurlbert's recommendation to dismiss the USFilter plan also is being criticized by those who see technical and political merit in the idea and support further study.

Hurlbert, who has taught a class on the sea's biology for 24 years, also is a vocal opponent of what he considers rampant population growth on the California coast.

He said if USFilter's vision for the sea comes to fruition, it would provide drinking water to support even more newcomers to the arid region.

Hurlbert based much of his criticism of the USFilter proposal on his knowledge of an earlier, yet less thorough, Salton Sea idea.

"The whole objective of (the USFilter) proposal is not to try to restore the Salton Sea to a healthy system," Hurlbert said. "It is proposed by people who are completely naive about everything except water technology and how to get water to cities."

USFilter and its supporters tout the "Salton River Solution" as the most credible attempt to date to confront long-standing environmental, political and fiscal obstacles that contribute to the sea's ongoing decline.

The company supported a Dec. 12 decision by the Salton Sea Authority to conduct a preliminary review of the plan and assess its merits and drawbacks.

Hurlbert's criticisms came in a four-page paper dated Dec. 10.

 "As we have said from the beginning, the USFilter plan should really be viewed as a technical framework that can be modified and flexed to accommodate a variety of concerns -- including aesthetic, environmental and economic," wrote USFilter CEO Andy Seidel in response to the critique.

 "My first reaction is that Stuart Hurlbert's criticism is typical of the intellectual paralysis that has hindered all previous attempts to unify the various political powers and implement a viable, long-term solution to the Salton Sea's current predicament."

The sea is plagued by rising salinity and excessive nutrient growth that threaten to choke the life from hundreds of millions of fish that reside in the water. Many of the more than 400 species of birds that live around the sea depend on the fish for food. The sea is replenished largely by irrigation runoff from Imperial Valley farmland and loses water only through evaporation.

So, the bulk of the salts, contaminants and excess nutrients coming into the sea remain, and concentrate, as the water evaporates.

To make matters more urgent, there is tremendous political pressure from coastal California to convert much of the sea's inflow into drinking water. The sea already is caught in the middle of a proposed water transfer from Imperial Valley to San Diego and the Coachella Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District, a key party in the deal, has refused to sell the water in part because it wants to avoid being stuck paying for damage it could do to the sea.

If the sea's inflows decline due to water transfers, it would hasten a spike in salinity, according to most experts. It also could expose the sea's bed to harsh winds that would add to air pollution in the Coachella and Imperial valleys.

 The USFilter idea calls for a circular dike to capture slightly saline water as it runs into the sea.

The dike would funnel the water toward a large desalinization plant. The treated water could then be sold to to coastal, or local, residents, which would offset some or all of the construction and maintenance cost.

The salty byproduct of the plant would be stored inside the dike. The center of the sea also could be covered with plants and grasses to reduce dust and possibly provide habitat for animals.

 The water on the dike's exterior could be a haven for wildlife and a recreational outlet for people, according to Joe Zuback, the engineer who designed the plan.

Virtually every plan for the sea calls for an investment of billions of dollars. The USFilter idea harnessed political momentum because it could be largely self-financed.

"We haven't found anything yet that appears to be a fatal flaw," Zuback said.

Hurlbert disagreed.

 The biologist identified a number of perceived shortfalls beyond the potential contribution to coastal development.

 He said the hot desert sun would fuel uncontrolled algae and plant growth in the water trapped by the dike. The resulting "organic muck" would "make most portions of the shoreline inaccessible ...."

 Hurlbert also wrote that the exposed center of the dike would make a poor habitat for wildlife. Plants that would thrive in the salty soil, like salt grass and salt cedar, don‚Äôt support many animals, he wrote.

 "This brine pit would have no positive values for wildlife or people," Hurlbert wrote.

According to Zuback, Hurlbert's concerns largely can be offset by modifications to the original plan, a process USFilter officials anticipated.

 Zuback and others interested in the sea said Hurlbert offered some helpful criticism.

But they mostly were turned off by the acerbic nature of the paper.

"If someone had a better idea, I would be the first person to stand out and say, "Let's go with that..." Zuback said.

Seaside resident Larry Anderson said he asked Hurlbert to study the USFilter plan because the biologist is considered a top expert on the sea. But he was disappointed in the result.

Hurlbert used information from USFilter's Web site and background knowledge of another plan that was rejected in 2001 as the basis for his criticism.

The earlier plan by the Pacific Institute called for dikes to trap fresh water. But it did not propose a way to improve water circulation or a financing mechanism.

 "I thought (Hurlbert) was premature in his criticism," Anderson said. "Surely, (USFilter experts) have some good ideas."

Milton Friend, the retired founder of the Salton Sea Science Office and an authority on the sea, has seen neither the USFilter proposal nor the Hurlbert critique.

 He said solving the sea's myriad problems likely will involve a combination of many proposals.

 "It is basically a mix and match," Friend said. "Out of all ideas ... there are usually some good aspects."

 Friend said the sea's needs are "quite urgent." He said stable salinity "is the biological backbone that is going snap here. Once it collapses, it will be irretrievable."

 Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a coalition of governments and water districts that act as the sea's caretakers, said some of Hurlbert's points have merit, as do aspects of the USFilter plan.

 Confronting the sea's long-term problems will take both sound science and a firm grasp of political reality, he said. The presence of a high-profile company like USFilter with the high environmental and fiscal stakes at risk near the sea is a volatile, yet potentially productive, mix, Kirk said.

It adds to the challenge facing scientists involved with the ongoing review of the plan, he said.

 "We have developed a wonderful capacity to be critical but not constructive," Kirk said. "I am wary of knee-jerk support for the proposal and I am wary of knee-jerk.

*Benjamin Spillman can be reached at 778-4643 or by e-mail at