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Salton Sea's Resources Drowning In Salt

By Nancy Cleeland
The San Diego Union Tribune, February 1, 1983

Falling Water alarms residents, sportsmen

AMONG FISHERIES in California it has no rival. Veterans tell stories of boats overflowing with fish, of chests and trunks full of fish on the shore. And the stories are true. An average catch in the summer - the most productive season - is 50 to 100 fish per day. Even now, anglers fill their buckets after a morning of work. 

Thirty-five miles long and 15 miles wide, the Salton Sea is saturated with life. So much life, biolo-gists say, that it could produce more protein than all the farmland surrounding it in Imperial and River-side counties.

Yet the sea is dying. Its water level is dropping - now at the rate of six inches per year - and with every drop comes an increase in salinity. If the trend continues, all fish in the sea will eventually die.

"I'm very pessimistic," said Tex Ritter, chief ranger at the Salton Sea state park for eight years. "In five to 10 years, I think we're going to lose this fishery."

With the fish may go thousands of resident and migratory birds that use the sea as a feeding and nesting area. Among them are seven endangered species, including brown pelicans, southern bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Bird watchers, who stalk their quarry from several national wildlife refuges, have counted more than 300 species.

Among duck hunters, the sea's marshland is legendary. Thousands of acres of federal and - state land are set aside for hunters another 55 private duck clubs help serve the estimated 64,000 people who hunt there every year.

A few small towns filled mostly with trailer parks have grown up around the sea; and residents are worried. "I'm just afraid there might not be anything left," said Willie B. Anderson, a retired Los Angeles postal worker who opened Bill's Bait and Tackle in Bombay Beach last year. "People live out here for the fishing."

Ranger Tex Ritter (above) worries about the futureof Salton Sea below, John Porter deplays his catch; Talman Futlon, below, and BobLassley clean the rewards of a mornings's fishing.

Echoed one of his customers, "Without the fish, this'll be a ghost town."

Seeking strength in numbers, some active residents are now forming a coalition of clubs to save the sea. At recent organizational meetings, 16 clubs - including the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and the 400-member Salton Sea Fish and Wildlife Club - were represented. Their goal: A proposition on the next ballot asking for control of the salinity and water level of the sea.

Were not demanding things, we just want to keep them as they are," said director Milt Manning, of North Shore. We don't have much, and we don t want to lose what we have."
'It will get saltier and sa1tier, until the sea is a dead sea 'said water district spokesman.'

However, most people who fish, hunt and camp at the sea--estimated at nearly two million last year--are not political activists. This lack of visibility, said Ranger Ritter may be one reason little has been done since the salinity problem became apparent more than 10 years ago.

"Salton Sea people are not organizers. They came here to get away from things. A lot of them are loners. They're retired, they're poor.

"This sea provides a lot of recreation to low income people. Look around, you don t see any Hiltons hear."

Another problem hampering efforts to save the sea is the number of agencies involved. Land is. under the jurisdiction of Riverside and Imperial counties as well as state and federal governments; water controlled by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID); Department of Fish and Game controls hunting and fishing.

With so. many interests--often conflicting--it would be difficult enough to revive a sea dying of natural causes. But there are other factors.

Strict water conservation measures now being observed by the IID will reduce water flow into the sea by as much as 25 percent most of it agricultural water. The district is facing several lawsuits from shoreline property owners who were flooded out by the rising sea level, and is desperately trying to lower that level.

Said IID spokesman Dick Taylor. "It is the objective of the board of directors to enforce the most stringent water conservation policy possible. This will inevitably lead to even more of a reduction in the amount of water flowing to the sea. From that standpoint, it will get saltier and saltier and saltier, until the sea is a dead sea.

"It's a sad situation. None of us want to see the sea become a dead sea but we cannot waste water."

Proposed geothermal development would divert water from riv-ers that feed fresh water to the sea, thus magnifying the salinity problem. A pending lawsuit, filed by the Fish and Wildlife Club, asks that the development be stopped until environmental impacts can be reevaluated. But the point may be moot. Geothermal development no longer appears to be economically feasible, and its water needs are not as great as once thought, said DFG environmental analyst Dick Daniel.

A pilot solar pond project, recently proposed by the Southern California Edison Company, would use the sea's saline water to produce electrical power. (A similar project is now in use in Israel).

This project was once seen as the sea's great hope, particularly if ex-panded, because it would provide an outlet for its salty water. However, Cal Edison spokesman Bob Krauch said because of "economic changes, it is highly unlikely that such a project would move forward. It doesn't appear feasible to do anything now."

What can be done? A state-federal task force addressed that question in 1970, and four years later, found one simple answer: The sea must have an outlet other than evaporation, so that its salty water can be replaced by fresh water. The task force recommended building a large dike in the middle of the sea, into which sea water would be pumped and al-lowed to evaporate, the salts then removed.
'The outlook for the recreational resources is indeed gloomy'
Cost of the dike was estimated at $58 million. Though the economic benefits--mostly in recreation dollars and increased property values were found to be greater than costs, neither state nor federal funding was approved. The dike project faded into oblivion.

Last April, Fish and Game com-missioners took another look at the sea's problems, and voted to "urge the formation of a multi-agency task force" which would "prepare a program designed to permanently stabilize Salton Sea salinity..."

Nine months later, the task force has yet to be formed. Hal Cribbs, executive secretary for the commis-sion, said the job was too big for the fish and game department to handle alone, and no other agencies wanted to help. Imperial County is working on the idea now, he said.

Meanwhile, salt content has reached 40,000 parts per million, much saltier than the Pacific Ocean and considered borderline for fish reproduction. "Based on what we know, if it remains that high for five to 10 years, then I think the fishery is going to be in very bad shape," said biologist Black. "You may not have much of a fishery at all."

Ranger Ritter said this year's spawn appears to be less successful than previous years, "but that's just personal observation." The sea is still loaded with healthy fish, as any angler can see after an hour's fish-ing. How long it will remain that way is impossible to tell.

However, without a master plan that involves all agencies, Black said, "the outlook for the Sea's recreational resources is indeed gloomy."

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