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Lovers of Salton Sea Hope to Turn Back Tide of Decline;
Environment: A New Agency will Address the Toxic Stew and Fluctuations of Water Level. But a Lack of Funds and Clout is Testing the Gritty Optimism of Locals.

By Tony Perry
The Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1993


The Salton Sea is a shallow body of water in deep trouble.

Lee Dye Jr., a retired Marine staff sergeant who quotes Emerson and Toynbee and lives with dogs named Dino and Tailgate, knows the Salton Sea is in sorry shape. Yet he remains in his low-ceilinged house just a stone's throw from the seashore.

Where else could he find the solitude to spend his days playing the stock market and reading French literature? Or the crystal clarity to scan the desert sky at night and contemplate the constellations?

"I remember before I moved down here, people said the Salton Sea would be too salty by 1975 to allow any life in the water," said Dye, 72. "I came anyway and the Salton Sea is still here."

The last few years, though, have sorely tested the gritty optimism of Dye and several thousand other hardy souls who refuse to abandon the state's largest lake, which has become the ecological equivalent of the Broadway stage: always dying but never quite dead.

During the four blistering summer months, the sea is like something out of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Breezeless, punished by a hot and copper sky, water everywhere but none to drink (the sea is 30% saltier than the ocean), water that is burnt green (or brown or rust), water that has slimy things growing and rotting in it.

Into this bleak landscape has come something new.

For the first time since the Salton Sea was created in 1905 when an engineering mistake let the Colorado River gush into an ancient salt sink, there will be a public agency charged solely with saving the Salton Sea.

One day in late June, when the temperature hit 115 degrees, politicians from Imperial and Riverside counties gathered in the un-air-conditioned meeting room of the Salton Sea Spa and Recreational Vehicle Park. They drank champagne, ate jumbo shrimp and saluted the newly formed Salton Sea Authority, to be ruled jointly by Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

"Our job is to keep the Salton Sea from becoming the Dead Sea," said Riverside Supervisor Bob Buster. "We should have been doing this 20 years ago," said Imperial Supervisor Dean Shores.

The obstacles are daunting. The infant agency has no clout to mandate that farmers curb their use of pesticides or that the Mexican government stop dumping into the north-flowing New River, which delivers a toxic stew daily into the Salton Sea.

Although there are a variety of promising engineering solutions for the sea's woes, such projects would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the Salton Sea Authority has no money. The agency has no staff. Nor does it have a strategy for cutting through the jurisdictional disputes, competing economic interests and public apathy that have stagnated previous efforts to throw a lifeline to the Salton Sea.

But hope is where you find it. And lovers of the Salton Sea believe the time for action may have finally arrived for this unnatural natural resource, which is 35 miles long, 15 miles wide, an average of 16 feet deep, and twice as big as Lake Tahoe.

If help arrives, it will hardly be a moment too soon. Consider the depressing roll call of the Salton Sea's recent problems: The birds are dying. Some species of fish are refusing to reproduce. Scientists are saying scary things about DDT and the toxic chemical selenium lurking in the brackish water. Tourists are fleeing.

Since 1986, health officials have posted signs warning that women of child-bearing age and children under 14 should not eat fish from the sea and that nobody should eat more than eight ounces of it every two weeks. The number of campers annually at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area has dropped by two-thirds in seven years. The number of fishermen and hunters at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is down by half.

The New River, one of two rivers that empty into the Salton Sea, has been called the most polluted river in North America. Fluctuating water levels in the sea, caused by irrigation runoff and rain runoff from the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Chocolate Mountains, have flooded waterfront businesses, then left boat ramps high and dry. Motels, marinas and restaurants are abandoned, vandalized and graffitied.

The sea smells so awful that the West Shore Chamber of Commerce feels compelled to hand out a fact sheet entitled "Questions Often Asked About The Salton Sea." Among them: "What is that smell?" Answer: fermenting algae giving off hydrogen sulfide gas.

Boosterish billboards, "The Salton Sea, The Place To Be," are mocked by other weather-beaten signs that promise "Future Home of . . . ," relics of unrealized development. Streets lead to seaside subdivisions never built.

As if things were not bad enough, Joseph Wambaugh took a whack at the Salton Sea in his recent novel, "Fugitive Nights." Wambaugh's antihero, a broken-down Palm Springs cop, tails what he thinks is a cheating husband to a desert rendezvous:

"He was wondering why a rich guy like Clive Devon would hang around this dying place. Even the lowliest desert denizens had just about given up on the Salton Sea. That morning the wind was blowing a foul algae-sewage smell his way."

Wambaugh was not the first to use the Salton Sea as backdrop for corruption. The climax of the 1954 film noir "Highway Dragnet," a non-classic starring Richard Conte as an ex-Marine suspected of murdering a Las Vegas model, and Joan Bennett as a dissolute photographer, was filmed in a resort along the sea's north shore.

Whether the filmmakers knew it or not, the Salton Sea is an apt metaphor for human arrogance and conflicting desires.

By all the laws of nature, the Salton Sea should not exist. It was born from greed and error and has been kept alive artificially ever since.

For eons the Salton Sink, the region's deepest depression, had periodically filled with water from climatic changes and the shifting Colorado River. The water would slowly disappear through the inexorable forces of evaporation and rising salinity.

In 1905, the sink again was filled with water, but this time it was because of an engineering mistake by investors trying to harness the Colorado River for Imperial Valley farmers. Land developer Anthony Heber, impatient for boom times, per suaded his partner and engineer Charles Rockwood to cut a small channel from the Colorado River into a northboundcanal just south of the Mexican border, stealing water from the Mexicans. Nearly as soon as the cut was finished, the Colorado River pushed wildly into the channel, jumped its banks and rushed into the Salton Sink for 16 months before being controlled.

Rather than vanishing in a few years, the new sea remained. The natural processes of evaporation and salinity were offset by agricultural runoff, a byproduct of the modern miracle that turned a hostile desert into one of the richest farming regions in the world.

The paradox is that while agriculture water keeps the sea in existence, it also contributes deadly chemicals--DDT, selenium and mercury--that threaten the fish and birds.

Now the Salton Sea Authority is weighing the competing demands. Is the sea primarily an agricultural sump or a wildlife refuge and recreational playground? Should it be allowed to slowly evaporate away, the remnant of a long-ago mistake?

Engineers say that given enough political and economic resources, the Salton Sea can be made to accommodate agriculture, wildlife and recreation. There are recommendations for evaporation and drainage ponds, dikes, a desalination plant or a channel to bring clean water from the Gulf of California.

"There are between a half-dozen and dozen (plans) that you could write up today and start tomorrow," said Tom Levy, general manager and chief engineer for the Coachella Valley Water District. "It's finding the resources to fund them that is the hard part, and this is the thing I don't think anyone is coming to grips with."

A sewage treatment plant for Mexicali, which dumps partially treated sewage into the New River, could cost $50 million to $150 million. The overall price tag for cleaning up the 380-square-mile Salton Sea has been estimated at between several hundred million and a billion dollars. Some steps have been taken toward funding the cleanup but they are
small and tentative.

A bill co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would appropriate $10 million to design a sewage treatment plant at Mexicali. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who took an aerial tour of the area during last year's campaign, has vowed not to vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico stops polluting the New River.

President George Bush, in his waning days in office, authorized the federal Bureau of Reclamation to spend $10 million on Salton Sea cleanup projects, but only if state and local governments pitch in a matching amount--something unlikely to happen soon.

As they wait for help, Salton Sea residents, many of them tight-budget pensioners, mix nostalgia with a kind of we're-all-right-Jack mentality that says the problems of the sea are overblown.

"The Salton Sea used to be a real jumping place," said Frances Fiamengo, who retired from a telephone company and moved to the Salton Sea to escape the congestion of Los Angeles. "People would come to the North Shores Yacht Club in tuxedos and formals."

The rising sea flooded the club and ended the night life. "It's so sad now," Fiamengo said. "It's all crumbling."

Dennis Imhoff, supervising ranger at the State Recreation Area, says he has no problem recommending the Salton Sea as an ideal place for families. "The Salton Sea has a terrible public relations problem," he said. "We have people swim here all the time and I've never known anyone to get sick."

Helen Burns, 80, who came to the Salton Sea in 1948, ran a bar and restaurant for years and now publishes the weekly Salton Seafarer ("The Voice of the Salton Sea"). She remains bullish on the sea and eats the fish every chance she gets.

Certain kinds of fish in the Salton Sea do seem to be in decline but others, such as orange-mouth corvinas, are bountiful. The state Department of Fish and Game has been vigilant in keeping the sea well-stocked and finding species tough enough to survive.

Rolla Williams, outdoor writer emeritus for the San Diego Union-Tribune, has been fishing the Salton Sea since the 1950s. He says it is the only body of water in Southern California where even a novice angler is in no danger of being shut out.

"It's a lovely experience as far as catching fish," Williams said. "The water is dark, almost chocolate color, and you think no fish could possibly live there. Then you get a tug on your line and you've got a big fish, a six- or seven-pounder."

Birds are also plentiful, at least for the time being. Millions of migratory birds from 400 species use the 2,200 marshy acres of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge along the Pacific Flyway.

Although use of the Salton Sea by campers, fishermen and hunters may be declining, use by bird watchers has nearly doubled in the past six years--despite the fact that 150,000 eared grebes died at the Salton Sea in 1991 and 1992.

Scientists suspected that salinity, selenium and mercury from the Salton Sea had killed the birds. After exhaustive tests, those explanations were ruled out and the cause remains a mystery.

Still, bird carcasses, deformed embryos and cracked eggs continue to be found, leading to suspicions that more mass die-offs are possible. Bill Radke, a biologist at the wildlife refuge, said the birds at the Salton Sea are a lot like the people: "The tough ones learn to adapt and survive, the others move elsewhere."

Despite the Salton Sea's importance as a bird refuge, its survival has not become a priority with the Sierra Club or Audubon Society. There is no lobbying effort, no public education outreach, no fund raising, no threatened litigation.

"It's not because the Salton Sea is not important," said Audubon Society official Karen Messer. "It's just that we have our hands full with other issues."

It is an article of faith at Salton City that the outside world does not give a hoot about the Salton Sea. An agreement last year between the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District has inflamed that feeling.

With MWD picking up the $220 million cost, the Imperial Irrigation District has begun lining its agricultural canals to prevent leakage. MWD gets whatever water is saved, which hurts the Salton Sea because agricultural runoff, despite its problems, helps slow the rise in salinity.

Some residents of the Salton Sea fume that MWD is willing to sacrifice the Salton Sea so that more water is available for Los Angeles, 150 miles away.

"We don't want to become the next Owens Valley," said activist Elaine Gibson-VanOver, a bitter reference to the Central California region left dry by a controversial agreement earlier this century to pump its water to Los Angeles.

While the politicians, scientists and engineers do their figuring, Gibson-VanOver and other residents of the Salton Sea savor their isolation.

"If you want quiet, you can't beat the Salton Sea," said Joe Slavik, a former New Yorker who runs the grocery store at Bombay Beach. Dye stays out of the summer sun for fear it will activate his skin cancer. He works on projects such as a free-verse American update of the Faust legend.

"Once you learn to live with loneliness," Dye said, "the Salton Sea is not such a bad place."

PHOTO: Salton Bay Resort is one of many abandoned businesses along shore. PHOTO: Trash lines the Alamo River, one of two that feed the Salton Sea.

GRAPHIC-MAP: Troubled Waters, HELENE WEBB / Los Angeles Times

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