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Saving the Salton Sea
Efforts are Under Way to Restore the Health of an Accidental Ecosystem
By Anita Wadhwani
The San Jose Mercury News,Tuesday, February 15, 2000


AT ONE time, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys crooned here nightly, and more people spent their summer vacations sunbathing along the shoreline than hiking in Yosemite National Park.

But most tourists who flocked to the Salton Sea in the 1950s and 1960s have long since abandoned California's largest -- and largely forgotten -- inland body of water. They were driven away by floods that claimed swank yacht clubs, reports of raw sewage leaching in from Mexico and the stench of thousands of rotting fish along the shores.

Today the sea has been left mainly to the birds. But new efforts to save the Salton Sea are under way.

A 300,000-acre saltwater lake that straddles Riverside and Imperial counties in the hottest, driest part of southeastern California 40 miles north of the Mexican border, the sea is a stopping ground for nearly 400 species of birds, more than any other wetland in the United States except the Texas Gulf Coast.

Millions of migrating birds, including endangered brown pelicans, rare blue herons and grebes, flock to the sea during winter months.

The sea -- at 35 miles long and 15 miles wide it is three times the area of San Jose -- is also a fishing and boating spot, and a drainage basin for agricultural wastewater.

In recent years, however, the birds and fish have been dying at alarming rates, and it appears that time is running out for the ailing sea. Since 1992, more than 200,000 birds have died along the sea's shore. There have been frequent fish die-offs during summer months: nearly 8 million fish died in just one day in August.

Scientists give the Salton Sea 15 years before its salinity, already 25 percent greater than the Pacific Ocean's, reaches levels too salty to sustain fish life.

The sea is getting saltier fast. Each year, 4.5 million tons of salt leaches from the already salty Colorado River water that irrigates farmlands and flows into the streams and rivers feeding the sea. The runoff also contains fertilizers, which are full of nutrients.

Because the sea's only outlet is evaporation, what goes into the sea stays and becomes more concentrated.

``The sea is like an aquarium that's never been cleaned,'' said Patrick Quinlan, an aide to the late Rep. George Brown, who made its restoration a priority before his death last July.

Meanwhile, researchers don't have the final word on the damage caused by the sea's other main problem: pollutants that flow in from nearby farms and residential areas.

Now, more than two decades of debate over how -- and whether -- to save the sea are coming to a head.

Over the past several years, Congress has approved $20 million worth of scientific studies on the sea's problems, and a draft environmental impact statement was released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month.

The study outlines five ambitious options. They include building huge evaporation ponds within the sea to reduce its salinity; constructing towers to blow water over land, evaporating it and catching salt in basins below; and various combinations of these. The cost: roughly $300 million to $1.5 billion over the next 30 years.

A series of public hearings will be held through April. The bureau hopes to choose a solution by the end of the year, said spokesman Robert Walsh, and then it will be up to Congress to fund any programs.

Accidental sea

What makes the environmental rescue plans unusual is that the Salton Sea is anything but natural. It was accidentally created in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through levees constructed to divert water for irrigation of Imperial County farms. For 18 months, river water poured into the second-lowest point in the United States -- the Salton Sink desert. It created a body of water about twice the size of Lake Tahoe with a surface elevation 227 feet below sea level.

Since then the sea has been a dumping ground for agricultural water running off fields in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and, to a lesser extent, urban wastewater from those valleys and Mexicali, south of the border.

But with 91 percent of Southern California wetlands lost to development, this artificial ecosystem has become among the most important habitats for birds in the West.

``We've created this dilemma,'' said Phil Pryde, chairman of Audubon-California's Salton Sea Task Force in San Diego. ``We've screwed up all other possibilities. The sea's arguably the most important component on the Pacific flyway.''

Runoff critical

The sea relies mainly on irrigation runoff from nearby farmers' fields to replenish the water that evaporates from its surface every year. One-third of the water used to irrigate crops in the Imperial Valley winds up in the Salton Sea -- about the same amount that evaporates off it each year.

That farm runoff is a toxic soup, laden with salt, fertilizers, selenium and traces of pesticides. Yet without the agricultural runoff -- amounting to 1.4 million acre-feet a year -- the sea would become a dry lake bed in 10 years. (An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, enough water to sustain a family of five for a year.)

``The relationship between agriculture and the Salton Sea is a love-hate one,'' said Stuart Hurlbert, a San Diego State University limnologist, or lake scientist. ``Agriculture is the source of the water it so desperately needs to replenish itself, but it's also the source of salt and other nutrients, of which there are too many.''

Periodic fish die-offs are a sure sign that something is not quite right. Millions of croaker, corvina and sargo planted by wildlife officials in the sea's heyday, and the more plentiful tilapia, an African freshwater species that was introduced into nearby farm drains to eat algae but have thrived in the sea, die at once. They blanket the shores and create an odor that can be smelled 48 miles away on Palm Springs golf courses.

The fish are stressed by many factors: The temperature of the 30-foot-deep water becomes too hot for some species in the summer when desert thermometers often break the 100-degree mark.

Phosphates and nitrates that flow into the sea from agricultural fertilizers and treated municipal wastes make plant life, particularly algae, flourish. When the water heats up, the algae bloom quickly form and die, consuming the already depleted oxygen levels as they decompose. The eutrophic, or algae-rich, water doesn't contain enough oxygen for fish and may be the primary cause of large-scale die-offs.

But the bird die-offs are the surest sign that things are getting worse. More than 150,000 eared grebes died mysteriously in 1992.

Botulism struck several thousand American white pelicans -- 10 percent of their western population -- and more than 1,000 brown pelicans in 1996.

In 1998, Congress took up the Salton Sea issue as a memorial to Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Palm Springs, who used to water ski there as a teenager and made its recovery a pet project. After Bono's death in a snow-skiing accident, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led Congress in approving $5 million for the 18-month environmental impact study.

How to save the Salton Sea is a difficult question shaped by historic tussles over water between Southern California urban and agricultural centers.

The Imperial Irrigation District, based in the city of Imperial, is the largest agricultural district in the United States. It controls most of the water that California receives from the Colorado River, diverting it to area farmers.

For more than seven decades, California has taken more than its allotted share of the water under a 1920s Colorado River treaty, and much of that has found its way onto Imperial Valley farm crops. Now Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and states such as Nevada and Arizona, have been pressuring California to honor its limits as the growing cities of Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas increase demand for their share of water.

That will mean a loss to the Imperial Irrigation District of millions of gallons of Colorado River water daily.

Additionally, the Imperial district is poised to sell some water now made surplus by new agricultural conservation methods to growing Southern California cities. Thirsty San Diegans are expected to take as much as 200,000 acre-feet each year from the district.

That's about 15 percent of what now flows into the Salton Sea. This concerns scientists who estimate the sea level is certain to drop at least 10 feet as pending water deals go through, exposing as much as 40,000 acres of shoreline.

``It's a huge potential for airborne dust and sediment that's going to blow right over the productive agricultural land of Imperial Valley,'' said Tim Krantz, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands.

Crops grown in the area are among the most water-intensive in California. A complex network of 1,700 miles of canals and 32,000 miles of underground drains irrigates cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, sudan grass and wheat in a blistering, dry climate. Enough runoff from these crops flows into the sea to replenish what evaporates from it.

This puts environmentalists -- who for the last 30 years have targeted such practices as wasteful -- in a quandary.

``It's hard for some environmentalists to figure out what side to come down on,'' said Dan Suyeyasu of Environmental Defense, a non-profit conservation group in San Francisco. ``It's an excellent bird habitat. But it's to some degree unnatural and is being supported by wasteful water consumption in Imperial Valley.''

Over the next year, the Salton Sea Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation will test several ways to address the salinity problems.

One plan calls for the construction of 100-foot towers along the shores or in the water near the shore. These ``enhanced evaporation systems'' would suck up water and spray it through high-pressure nozzles strung between them over the nearby shore like a giant sprinkler system. The water would evaporate before it hits the ground, leaving a sprinkle of salt and other particles to fall to the ground.

The particles would either be collected in a shoreline basin or transported to a landfill. The tower plan calls for removing 150,000 acre-feet of highly salty water from the sea each year, allowing less salty inflows to dilute the salinity content of the sea's water.

The towers raise concerns about how to dispose of salt and other sediments deposited near the shore, and about the dangers of wind spreading particles to nearby residential and agricultural areas.

This evaporation system was first used to desalinate a pond in Israel but shut down because particles were blown across nearby agricultural fields, said Fred Kagle of the Sierra Club, who sits on the federally appointed science committee that is evaluating proposals to save the sea.

However, the technology's inventor, Gad Asaf of Agam Energy System Ltd., in Israel, says that wouldn't be a problem at the Salton Sea, where the nearest inhabitable area is more than a mile from the proposed tower locations.

Another idea

Another alternative would be displacement dikes, which would decrease the surface area, allowing the sea to maintain its surface elevation even if less water flows in future years.

``It's like putting a brick in a toilet tank,'' said Krantz, of the University of Redlands. Some plans call for the construction of diked areas along the shore. The shallow waters created by these shoreline ponds would maintain the sea's elevation in certain areas, preserving vital habitat for non-diving shorebirds such as plovers, sandpipers and avocets.

All of the proposed technologies are interim measures. They rely on a major inflow of water in the next 20 to 30 years to offset the decreased flow into the sea because of water sales and conservation.

One long-term recommendation is to import treated wastewater -- as much as three times the current inflow to the Salton Sea -- through a massive pipeline from central Arizona.

But critics say this proposal is designed more to feed the Bureau of Reclamation's appetite for large-scale engineering projects than to save the sea.

``The bureau only knows how to build monuments to human engineering, not how to sustain an ecosystem,'' said Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank that has studied the sea.

Critics also say the proposals address only the salinity and elevation levels, rather than the overload of nutrients. Some scientists say impure runoff is the most pressing and politically tricky problem because it would require agriculture and municipalities to take strong, expensive measures with wastewater before it flowed into the sea.

``I told them if they don't do something about nutrients, they'll take a lake that's 45 parts per thousand (in salt content) and killing wildlife to one that's 35 parts per thousand and killing wildlife,'' said Hurlbert, the San Diego State lake scientist.

Limit dumping?

One way to deal with nutrients would be for water agencies to limit the amount that could be dumped in the sea. Under the federal Clean Water Act, total maximum daily loads are enforced on businesses that create wastewater. But the act exempts agriculture. And Imperial County farmers say they cannot afford to clean up water after it flows from their fields.

``The fact of the matter is that we farm in some of the hottest, driest, toughest places in the world so we can feed the world,'' said Wally Leimgruber, an Imperial County supervisor and former lettuce and alfalfa farmer. ``We use organic fertilizers when we can, but the reason we have vitality and vigorous crop growth is because we use stronger commercial fertilizers. And with the amount of water we need to use on the crops, we can't afford the municipal-level rates that it costs to clean the water up and still stay in business.''

Others question whether efforts to preserve an artificially created body of water should be undertaken at all.

``The concept of restoration is curious,'' Cohen said. ``It's not like there's some sort of pristine prior condition that they are aiming for. This sea is completely artificial.''

But this view needles Milton Friend, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Service who chairs the scientific evaluation efforts.

``There isn't really a `natural' scheme of things,'' Friend said. ``While some may call this artificial, I call it altered. We have romantic notions of the wilderness, but the truth is that hardly anything is untouched by humans, directly or indirectly.''

If you are interested, more information can be obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

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