Salton Sea Countdown to Collapse

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The Sea Still Has a Chance

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

The Salton Sea, ravaged by pollution and headed for ecological collapse after decades of neglect, may finally get some relief.

From Indio fishing tackle shops to Bombay beach taverns and Calexico vegetable fields, rumors of change are blowing like the tropical storms that roar north from Baja California across the desert. People are stirring and asking why the mighty inland sea should suffer.

"It infuriates me when I hear people say it's a lost cause because it's not. The Salton Sea is a very ecologically important are. It is not a hopeless case..."

Maria Rea, Environmental Protection Agency

"There is a real sense now we're going to go someplace with this. You can almost smell change blowing in the air," said Riverside County Supervisor Patricia "Corky" Larson, whose district includes the northern third of the sea.

A creative assortment of ideas, some simple, some extravagant, has been advanced to save the sea. They range from a multimillion-dollar desalination plant to enhanced wildlife habitat to pesticide removal from agricultural drains.

The Salton Sea has been at this juncture before. Like a shout into the desert wilderness no one hears, calls for help for the sea have gone unanswered. Missed opportunities, good intentions and lip service mark the sea's history.

Back in 1965, experts predicted environmental disaster at the Salton Sea and recommended to the state water quality board numerous strategies to reduce salinity. The proposals were left to gather dust, though some remain viable to this day.

In 1974, state and federal investigators concluded six years of study and recommended four methods using dikes to divide the sea and lower salinity. They were ignored.

In 1986, California established the Salton Sea Task Force, made up of representatives from 17 agencies, and directed it to search for ways to save the sea. Task force studies concluded it made economic sense to save the sea and identified several ways to do it, but the solutions were not carried out.

"There were 150,000 birds that died out there. Those are the kind of warning signs people have to take very, very seriously," said Carol Whiteside, assistant secretary for the Resources Agency and chair of the Salton Sea Task Force.

"You've got a decline in visitors, lost revenue to the economy. The warning signs are all there, the warning of the death of the sea, the point of no return," she said.

Said Mark Pisano, executive director for the Southern California Association of Governments: "You don't throw away the largest water body in the state."

Pleas such as those are beginning to be heard. Changes are in the works.

For example, a landmark California water reform law enacted last October authorizes the U.S. Department of Interior to spend $10 million to investigate ways to control salinity, improve wildlife habitat and protect recreational uses at the Salton Sea.

There is a catch, however. Congress must appropriate the money before any can be spent on the sea. That process is expected to take years.

Cash-strapped local and state governments must also match 50 cents for each dollar the federal government spends.

"It's a step forward. The history out there is everybody's got a lot of good ideas, but no money to implement them," said John Johnson, senior team leader for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

River Cleanup is Priority

In a historic effort to clean up the severely polluted New River, which flows into the sea, the United States and Mexico have agreed to eliminate untreated sewage discharges to the stream. Raw and partially treated sewage from Mexicali has been gushing through Imperial County and into the sea for five decades.

After 15 years of anxious negotiations, a conceptual agreement between the two countries calls for controls on hundreds of Mexicali toxic dumpers and $150 million in improvements to the city sewage treatment system. The U.S. government may pay for up to half the work, which will take at least five years to complete.

In a first step to reduce farm-generated toxic pollution, the Imperial Irrigation District in October began construction on a $186,000 settling pond near Holtville to intercept pesticide-laden silt before it reaches the sea.

If it works, more "desiltation traps" could be added to other farm drains, said Randall Stocker, manager of planning and technical services for the Imperial district.

And Riverside and Imperial counties are considering creation of a Salton Sea management authority, ending years of non-cooperation over the sea both counties share. More than a study group, the partnership would mean the arrival of real political power for the sea.

A charter for a two-county management authority has already been drafted and Larson said she plans meetings with Imperial County officials by spring.

Promising as those efforts are, they are baby steps. No single one, nor even all of them combined, is sufficient to save the sea.

Stacked against success are tremendous obstacles. Two stand out: time and the mind-bending complexity of the sea's misery.

With each passing day, seven tons of salt, a cup of selenium and a witches brew of pesticides are poured into the Salton Sea. Salinity already kills immature fish. Adult fish may be gone in a decade. Once they succumb, populations of birds that dine on them will crash.

Ifs, Ands, Buts

There are no silver bullets, no easy ways to wring all the misfortune that has been building in the sea's troubled waters.

Indeed, solving Riversides County's other big-ticket environmental problems, including protecting the Stephen's kangaroo rat, building a colossal landfill at Eagle Mountain, or cleansing the Stringfellow acid pits, are political-scientific simplicities compared to the Salton Sea.

At first glance, the easiest way to reduce pollution in the sea is to add more water for dilution. But that's already been done and the results were disastrous: more than $20 million in legal settlements paid to flooded property owners; a drowned-out waterfront economy; and a ruling by state water authorities to send water to cities instead of the sea.

Lowering the Salton Sea level appeals to seaside landholders, but it concentrates contaminants in the water, exposes a chemical-laden lake bottom to wind storms and hurts the fishery.

A channel build from the sea to the Gulf of California would provide a much-needed outlet to carry away super saline water. But the project would rival construction of the Panama Canal. Cost: roughly $500 million.

Want to keep raw sewage out of the sea? Talk to the source, the Mexican government, which as not been able to do it after a half-century of trying.

Selenium levels too high? Nature and farmers in other western states put in the Colorado River, the very water that sustains Salton Sea area farms, marshes and life in the sea itself. Removing selenium from farm wastewater could cost about $1 billion annually.

"With the Salton sea, the issues are just so complicated. The solutions are more complex, they are very costly, the proposed remedies are controversial and there are so many competing interests. It's just a mess," lamented John Borneman, western regional representative for the Audubon Society.

Expectation Lowered

People who study the sea have lowered expectations. They talk in terms of saving a remnant of the beneficial uses -- wildlife, recreation, the fisher -- and letting the remainder of the sea perish.

"There's some limitations from what we can expect. We're not going to be able to save the whole sea," said Owen McCook, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District.

Others doubt it can be saved at all.

For example, the State Water Resources Control Board views the sea as a lost cause. "The decline of the Salton Sea appeared to be inevitable," wrote Chairman Don Maughan in a recent letter.

Nature itself works against the Salton Sea. The shallow depression between Indio and El Centro called the Salton Sink is a closed basin, a salt trap. Throughout history, hundreds of lakes have filled, grown saline and shriveled away in the very spot now occupied by the sea.

There are other barriers, too. Powerful political forces resist cleanup.

The Bureau of Reclamation has a reputation of downplaying damage at selenium-ridden wildlife refuges in the West. Critics charge the agency's historical ties to agriculture prevent it from being an effective advocate for the Salton Sea environment.

Bureau officials testified against McCandless' bid to provide $10 million in federal funds for pollution remedies at the sea.

Johnson, the bureau's Salton Sea project leader in Boulder City, Nev., says his agency values the sea and its wildlife. But he added "we may have a soft spot at times for agricultural people."

The bureau supplies farms with Colorado River water, which contains the selenium that pollutes the Salton Sea. Because the bureau, Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District deliver water for irrigation, they potentially face millions of dollars in liability if a Salton sea cleanup were ordered. 

Geese and a geothermal plant represent the enviornmental and developmental concerns involving the Salton Sea.              Steve Medd / The Press-Enterprise

The MWD Threat

Recent actions by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California threaten the sea, too.

Blocked from pulling additional water from the Delta in the San Joaquin Valley and the Colorado River, the goliath water agency takes fresh water from Imperial Valley farms in exchange for millions of dollars in conservation improvements. Water saved on the farms is sent to 15 million people in thirsty cities from Ventura to San Diego and inland to Riverside.

MWD can pull 106,100 acre-feet per year from the Imperial Valley. Another 268,000 acre-feet could be taken in coming years. Although lauded as a pioneering water conservation program, the program will hasten the death of crustaceans, fish and birds at the sea. MWD also declined to help fund work by the Salton Sea Task Force.


"With the Salton Sea, the issues are just so complicated. The solutions are more complex, they are very costly, the proposed remedies are controversial and there are so many competing interests. It's just a mess."

John Borneman, the Audubon Society

"There are powerful interests in Southern California that don't want to see the sea cleaned up," said Phil Meyer, former consultant to the Salton Sea Task Force, in a reference to the MWD.

In contrast, advocated for protection of the sea are weak and ineffectual. Consequently, the sea is a perennial loser in political clashes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service walks a tightrope, attempting to coax the Bureau of Reclamation to take action to stem the pollution, but careful to avoid conflict with its more powerful sister agency.

Explained Joseph Skorupa, wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service: "We're so politically impotent that a lot of our people behave like an abused child behaves and that is go into a corner and hide in hope that it doesn't get beat up again."

No master plan has been developed to chart the sea's environmental and economic restoration. The sea does not even have a legal right to any fresh water, which it desperately needs to survive.

"There is no single entity that is looking out for the sea, whose sole purpose is to be an advocate for the sea...I'm just sick we haven't been able to come to grips and deal with it," said Lester Cleveland, executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments.

Lost Cause of Not?

Public perceptions work against the Salton Sea, too.

Tucked away in the remote southeast corner of the sate a shore jog from Mexico, the Salton Sea is about as isolated as you can get in California. The area is sparsely populated, rural working class and about 85 percent Hispanic. Unemployment hover around 30 percent.

"Money is power and there's no money here," said Helen Burns, editor of the Salton Seafarer newspaper.

With its muggy summers, occasional odors and lunar landscape, the Salton Sea area does not evoke the passion people feel for old-growth forests or dolphins.

"The Salton Sea isn't surrounded by the aesthetics that grab people like Mono Lake," Borneman explained. "One of the reasons the Bay-Delta issue receives so much attention is because you have millions of people in the Bay Area who drive across it or live and work right next to it. They can see what's happening to it because they are so close. But people never see the Salton Sea... there is an ignorance about what all the problems are."

The Salton Sea carries a stigma because it is an artificial creation. Were it not for a failed floodgate near Yuma that sent the entire flow of the Colorado River surging into the Salton Sink in 1905, the sea might not exist today.

Ever since its inception, it has been treated like an environmental stepchild. Farmers, even some environmentalists, subscribe to the notion that, if mankind made the sea, mankind can take it away.

SOLUTIONS: There will be a long and hard road ahead.

But before people built the great dams to tame the mighty Colorado River, the river naturally made big lakes in the Salton Sink. It happed in the summer of 1849 and again in 1862. A 100,000-acre lake was present 14 years before the Salton Sea. Lake Cahuilla was there 400 years ago, and it was twice the size of the modern Salton Sea.

"It infuriates me when I hear people say it's a lost cause because it's not. The Salton Sea is a very ecologically important area. It is not a hopeless case, but there are ways that we can save some of those values," said Maria Rea, chief of the water quality standards section for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's California office.

The sea may be too economically valuable to lose. Tourism pumps, about $300 million annually into the regional economy. Careful redevelopment of the waterfront could result in another $200 million spent by visitors and up to $670 million in construction and related spending. Controlling salinity, in contrast, would cost about $350 million, the Salton Sea Task Force's 1988 study concluded.

'Who Is Going To Pay?

"The question the task force has struggled with is who is going to pay, and that's where the thing's bogged down," explained Meyer, former consultant to the task force.

Officials have advanced a smorgasbord of revenue-raising ideas. None has been implemented. They include a Salton Sea surcharge on desert landfills and hazardous waste dumps; user fees for campers, skiers, boaters and fishermen; assessments for the 23,000 property owners around the sea; and dollars from the Metropolitan Water District, which draws water from the Salton Sea area for less than market value.

The fortunes of many depend on a healthy sea, and vice versa.

Said Henry Vaux, director of the University of California Water Resources center at the Riverside campus: "The future of the sea depends on what we want to make the future to be."

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