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Saving the Salton Sea:

A RESEARCH NEEDS ASSESSMENT

A Report Proceedings from the Workshop, "Saving the Salton Sea"
held August 4 - 8, 1997, Palm Springs, California

Sponsored by
U.S. Department of the Interior
Fish and Wildlife Service

In Cooperation with
California Department of Fish and Game
Bureau of Reclamation and
U.S. Geological Survey-Biological Resources Division
and Water Resources Division

Executive Summary*

October 1997

The Salton Sea is California's largest inland water body and an important resource for people and wildlife in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It is a major stop over for mil-lions of migratory water birds along the Pacific Flyway, supports 5 endangered species, and once was widely known and visited for its highly productive sport fishery. The abundance and diversity of birds has become known and a tremendous following has developed of avid birders from all over the world. A study by Paul Kerlinger conducted 1993 - 1994 found that 54,000 people spent $3.1 million in the area while watching birds. Dedicated lands in the Sea's environs include the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, the California Depart-ment of Fish and Game's Wister Wildlife Management Area, the Salton Sea State Recre-ational Area, and the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation. The Sea was originally created as a result of flood events in the lower Colorado River. Today, its major source of water replenishment is agricultural drainage. The Salton Sea is designated as a repository for surface and subsurface agricultural drainage in support of the $1 billion agricultural industry in Imperial and Coachella Valleys. The only outflow from the Sea is evaporation. Conse-quently, over time, water quality in the Sea has changed from a freshwater environment to a saline environment that is now saltier than seawater and becoming saltier. Environmental contaminants such as selenium, pesticides, and fertilizer compounds are also at concen-trations that may threaten the viability of fish and wildlife populations. Although fish kills have been observed for more than four decades, their frequency and magnitude have caused alarm in recent years. In addition, several previously abundant recreational fishes have declined in abundance, and other species are known to harbor potentially virulent forms of disease organisms. Human public health advisories warn of the dangers of eating fish caught in the Sea. The end-result is that the sport fishery may be on the verge of collapse, and other beneficial uses of the Salton Sea that contribute significantly to the local economy have been reduced in value.

Recent disease outbreaks in fish and birds at the Salton Sea have focused local and national attention on the status of this ecosystem as degraded and in dire trouble. The deaths of more than 150,000 eared grebes in 1992 from an undiagnosed cause; a severe botulism outbreak killing over 15,000 birds in 1996, including 1,400 endangered brown pelicans; the appearance of Newcastle disease in 1997 that decimated an entire nesting colony of double-crested cormorants, and numerous other die-offs documented since the 1970s, attests to the severity of the disease problems. In addition, literally millions of fish have died in continuous as well as epidemic events. Substantial public health concerns exist with regard to disease-causing agents present in the Salton Sea ecosystem. For example, several pathogenic microorganisms have been identified in the New River and efforts are ongoing to stop the flow of raw sewage from Mexico. However, critical baseline scientific data to facilitate focused epidemiological studies do not exist. This limits the capability of public health agencies to evaluate and respond to local public health concerns of people residing near the Salton Sea or utilizing its environs.

Proposals for major engineering projects have been developed to deal with the ongo-ing deterioration of the Salton Sea. Recognizing the need to address multiple, complex problems for wildlife and people in participating in the planning of a Salton Sea project, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation convened a workshop to examine scientific information needs efficiently. The workshop scientists were to collaboratively design a research proposal document, that when implemented and completed would yield the foundational understanding for intelligent decision making within the time frame mandated by the 1997 Congressional Action Plan for the Sea, prepared by the Salton Sea Congressional Task Force. The Action Plan was presented on behalf of the Inland Empire Congressional Delegation by Congressmen Sonny Bono and Duncan Hunter. It provides for three years of data gathering through a collaborative effort, eventually leading to a recommended solution for the Sea.

"Saving The Salton Sea" was a needs-assessment workshop held in Palm Springs, California, August 4 - 8,1997. The workshop brought together nearly 100 scientists, managers, agency and university representatives, and other interested parties. It was conducted in cooperation among the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Game, and others to develop a process to address the natural and cultural resource issues, and research and investigation needs for any proposed engineering solution to repair the Salton Sea Ecosystem. Twenty-one Federal, State and local agencies, universities and government offices participated (Appendix A).

The workshop focused on determining those tactical investigations and research initiatives of 1 - 3 year duration that should be completed, and what data and information needed to be synthesized to assess proposed engineering solutions for the troubled Salton Sea ecosystem. The natural resource and human values are so inextricably linked in this ecosystem, that a clear understanding must be reached of how this systems works in order to repair the problems for wildlife and people. It is recognized that the Sea will require a rigorous and comprehensive approach to understand and address the numerous problems preventing it from functioning as a healthy ecosystem. Furthermore, without enhanced knowledgeable and intensive management, the Salton Sea will not fulfill the needs of society and will continue to deteriorate. The end result will be the loss of regionally sig-nificant natural resources and severe economic losses for the human population.

To aid the workshop participants in framing their research needs within the context of proposed engineering solutions for the Sea, presentations were made of the three proposals being considered by Congress, the Salton Sea Authority, and private consultants to address the problems. The scientists were given full exposure to the gamut of robust initiatives under serious consideration. The three proposals presented to them included the diking alternative; the Congressional Action Plan which considers pumping water through Mexico, out of the Sea to the Sea of Cortez and returning gulf water to the Salton Sea; and pumping water out of the Sea through a "Riparian Corridor" extending from the Salton Sea to the Sea of Cortez.

The workshop topics included the natural and cultural resources, contaminants, and disease on an ecosystem level. Workshop participants were placed on teams to develop proposals that, when funded and completed, would provide data layers. The collection of those data layers would be coordinated to maximize collaboration, avoid unproductive duplication, and render the data available as quickly as possible to the many cooperators. A protocol would be developed to ensure the comparability and scientific validity of tech-niques and results. The data would be spatially referenced, so that all information could be incorporated into a model of the Salton Sea ecosystem in a Geographic Information Sys-tem (GIS). This would allow synthesis of the individual data layers into an interactive model that could simulate the synergistic complexities of the ecosystem in predicting changes, given differently engineered projects and managed scenarios.

The teams of scientists covered the physical environment, biological environment, cultural resources, pathogens and diseases, and contaminants. The proposals developed by these teams were to address various aspects of the following 3 goals: (1) Develop an under-standing of the Salton Sea ecosystem; (2) Develop an understanding of the factors driving massive fish and wildlife die-offs in the Salton Sea and environs, methods for interrupting this mortality, and the potential risks to human health; (3) Develop methodology for managing the Salton Sea ecosystem for maximum sustainability of cultural and biological resources which can later be used to address sustaining economic resources of the area. A great wealth of collective expertise and local knowledge were successfully melded through intense discussion into 39 proposals and over 44 accompanying recommendations. Budgets were developed for 31 of the proposals.

The entire package of 31 proposals, as drafted, would require $36,097,600 to imple-ment and complete, or $12 million per year over a 3-year period. With maximum coordi-nation of the studies and collaboration among the researchers, major overlap among the studies would be eliminated and costs would be reduced. The studies would provide a broad spectrum, in-depth examination of the physical and chemical attributes of the Sea's environment, the habits and roles of many key species, and how the living and non-living interact to cycle life and perturbations in the Salton Sea ecosystem. In understanding the interactions of salts, nutrients, and other key components of the water with current, wind, and wave, with organisms that produce and store food and accompanying chemicals, and species that consume, the cycling of problematic contaminants, toxins, and diseases could also be traced and counter-managed.

The data layers resulting from the studies drafted by the workshop scientists, when linked and analyzed, would comprise an ecosystem model with predictive capabilities. With such a tool, the engineered project for the Salton Sea and any subsequent manage-ment scheme could be implemented in accord with well-founded scientific strategies for maximizing success. Without this tool, the effects of a major project or management cannot be adequately predicted.

* [Note: Prepared by U.S. Department of the Interior Fish & /wildlife Service in cooperation with California Department of Fish & Game, bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey - Biological Resources Division and Water Resources Division and developed from the Task Force Workshop August 4-8, 1997]

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