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Salton Sea Rescue Effort Still In Limbo

Evaporation Pools Key To Most Of The 5 Alternatives
Laid Out By Planning Panel

By Jennifer Bowles
The San Francisco Chronicle

RIVERSIDE - Fierce competition for Colorado River water in the arid Southwest and the chance to harness the sun's power to desalt California's largest lake will delay the drafting of a final solution for curing the Salton Sea's environmental ills.

A team of local and federal agencies last month expanded its restoration report to see whether solar ponds were a viable option for desalting the Salton Sea, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties.

Dropped from the draft restora-tion report the idea of using less salty Colorado River water to dilute the sea.

The team's draft plan, released in January, was expected to identify a game plan. Instead, it laid out five multimillion-dollar options that, for the most part, relied on a network of evaporation machines to reduce the sea's salinity, now 25 percent higher than the Pacific Ocean's. That plan came under such attack that the team was forced to rethink it.

"One word is 'opposition,' "said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a joint powers agency that consists of local water districts and officials.

That opposition, Kirk said, came from water agencies that rely on Colorado River water -- including those in Arizona -- and from environmentalists who want any extra river water to revitalize the wetlands downstrean in the Colorado River delta in Mexico.

"It has not been easy to develop a restoration plan, and we must continue to rely on good science to guide restoration of the sea," said Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes.

Now, officials are working toward a Jan. 1 deadline to name the silver bullet.

"It's not the best news, but you have to understand the big picture," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs. "This is a huge undertaking."

Bono has championed the sea's restoration in Congress.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, wasn't as understanding.

"They're obviously pushing this problem to the next administration," said Calvert, who serves with Bono on the congressional task force for the Salton Sea. "I'm still pressing hard, but it's not going as fast as we would like."

The Interior Department, through the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Salton Sea Authority will launch a revised or supplemental report to the draft plan, which cost about $6 million from various state and federal funds, Kirk said.

The follow-up report, which would cost another $200,000, is expected to name a solution before Jan. 1 so Congress can have the opportunity to fund the project.

The announcement came as the summer heat was penetrating the sea and brewing up toxins in a naturally occurring spore, causing a botulism outbreak that has killed 215 birds since May 22. Of those, 113 have been endangered brown pelicans, said Tahni Johnson, a wildlife disease specialist contracted by the Salton Sea Authority.

The birds are a key reason for the restoration effort. The sea sits in a crucial spot for birds that migrate on the Pacific Flyway between the Arctic and Central America.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized the draft plan as inadequate for focusing to narrowly on salinity and elevation problems and failing to take into account the sea's part in a regional ecosystem.

In a lawsuit filed in May, environmental groups sought to get the federal government to consider allotting water from the Colorado River to help revitalize the delta's wetlands and the endangered species that depend on them for survival.

The salinity of the Salton Sea, which is now fed only by irrigation runoff and sewer discharge, has increased because there is no natural outlet, only evaporation from the surface.

The idea of using solar ponds to alleviate the salinity was suggested by an engineering firm that had reviewed the draft plan. The Salton Sea Authority plans to hire a contractor to build two ponds along the lake near Niland in Imperial County to test the theory.

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