By Stuart H. Hurlbert
Director, Center for Inland Waters
San Diego State University
19 June 1998
Southern Californians have become accustomed to considerable hyperbole and inaccuracy in reportage on Salton Sea issues. Dr Ivan P. Colburn's recent perspective column ("Salton Sea is Dead - Keep It That Way", Los Angeles Times, June 18) shows that the fault does not always lie with professional journalists. Scientists who pronounce on systems they are unfamiliar with can do damage too.
Colburn gives a reasonable synopsis of the Salton Sea's history and its character as a lake that persists only because of the large inflows of agricultural wastewaters. But he errs in many places and especially in claiming that "The salinity of the Salton Sea is now more than three times that of ocean water. ... The Salton is a dead sea. Efforts to revive it as a bird refuge and recreation area are doomed to failure .[it is] an environmental abscess on the southeastern California landscape."
The Salton Sea is only 25-30 percent saltier than ocean water, not 200 plus percent as he claims.
And far from being a "dead sea", it is as lively as they come. Fish grow faster here than in probably any other lake in North America. Sport fishing for tilapia (up to 2 lbs) and corvina (up to 20 lbs) remains excellent. On our visit a few weeks ago the fishermen were practically shoulder to shoulder along preferred portions of the northeastern shoreline at the State Recreation Area.
It is an excellent spot for boating and other watersports. Swimming is great, too, so long as you wear sneakers to deal with stones and barnacle shells on the bottom. The water tastes a little bitter but that is only because there is more sulfate than in ocean water, our usual standard for how salt water tastes.
The Sea hardly needs to be "revived" as a bird refuge. It is doing middling fine, thank you.
There is need for understanding and control of diseases that have killed a few hundred thousand birds there over the last several years. But for many millions more the lake has served and continues to serve as a banquet table. Overwintering there or stopping there during their migrations, birds grow fat and happy. More bird species have been recorded from the National Wildlife Refuge at the Sea's south end than have been recorded at any other NWR except that at Port Aransas, Texas. This diversity is not declining, and the Sea remains one of the most popular bird-watching spots in the U.S.
Colburn claims that the Salton Sea is not an "indispensable stopover" for migrating birds. He states that if the Sea is allowed to dry up (which is his recommendation), the birds will simply fly "a different route", as they did before formation of the Salton Sea. They certainly would attempt to do so - and surely many would not survive the experience.
The birds already know what Colburn does not: most of the stopover and overwintering points on these ancient "different routes" are long gone. They included the coastal lagoons, shallow lakes and marshes that abounded in California's Central Valley, along the coast of Southern California, and in the lower delta region of the Colorado River. Most of these have either disappeared completely or been severely degraded as a result of agricultural development, urban development, and our sucking dry of the Colorado River.
It was a felicitous accident of history that the Salton Sea was born at the beginning of the century just as we were accelerating the large scale destruction of so many other habitats for aquatic wildlife in California. The Salton Sea is one of the most successful environmental "mitigation projects" the U.S. has ever seen!
Having misled the reader by claiming the Sea is "dead" and without present value for wildlife or human recreation, Colburn then offers his solution: Dry up the Salton Sea by eliminating agricultural runoff. Presumably this would involve eliminating agriculture itself in the Coachella and Imperial (and Mexicali?) valleys - or perhaps the cleaning up of these wastewaters and the piping of them to California's coastal cities for the purpose of growing more people?
It is ironic that this suggestion comes only three paragraphs after Colburn refers to the severe dust pollution problem created by the drying up of Owens Lake in northern California. A dried up Salton Sea would provide a dust-producing lakebed almost four times larger than the desiccated bed of Owens Lake. And even now governmental standards for airborne particulate matter are exceeded much of the time in the Coachella and Imperial valleys.
To make matters worse, the dust from the exposed bed of the Salton Sea would be far 'dirtier' than that from the dry bed of Owens Lake. Within a year we will know more about the levels of pesticides, heavy metals, and other pollutants in the sediments of the Salton Sea. We don't have to wait a year to know, however, that worsened air quality in the region would be unacceptable.
In a nutshell, Colburn's proposal entails elimination of agriculture in the valleys, drying up of California's largest lake, great damage to aquatic wildlife, destruction of a major recreation spot, and a severe worsening of air quality. The regional economy would fall apart. People would not stay. It is a scenario that only creosote bushes could view with equanimity.
For most of this century the Salton Basin has been the site of a tremendously positive symbiosis between agriculture, wildlife, human recreation, and, in the early days, commercial fisheries. Agricultural wastewaters have been and are the life blood of the system but also have given the lake more salts and more nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) than are ideal. Reducing salinity and nutrient levels, and dealing with their consequences in the meantime, will require solution of a number of technical, political and legal problems. For now let's focus on solving these problems and restoring the health of the symbiosis. If we dry up the lake we truly will create an "environmental abscess" in the region.
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