By Gary Polakovic
Environmental groups ignore the ecological harm being wrought upon the Salton Sea. They are non-players in the controversy, a chief reason the decline of the sea goes uncontested, say people most familiar with the sea.
Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Water Resources Control Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Fish and Game, Salton Sea Task Force, universities and Salton Sea towns say environmentalists have betrayed the sea.
"We were asked several years ago to put someone on the Salton Sea Task Force. We could never get anyone to do that. No one was willing to take the time."
Carlos Ayala, Sierra Club
Some critics suspect the sea is being sacrificed to save Mono Like and the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Environmentalists, however, say they have too many issues an not enough resources to get to the Salton Sea.
"I have tried to get some environmentalists active on this and they all sort of shrug their shoulders and say they have other priorities. They all say, 'I'll get back to you later.' It's not their priority," said Carol Whiteside, assistant secretary for the state Resources Agency and chairwoman of the Salton Sea Task Force.
While Salton Sea wildlife is in deep trouble, the Audubon Society has buried its head in the sand. The Sierra Club has taken a hike. And the Environmental Defense Fund helped orchestrate a farms-to-cities water transfer that left the sea's environment defenseless against rising pollution, critics charge.
The Audubon Society has 55 chapters statewide, but none in the Imperial or Coachella valley. The society's top priority these days is to stop wetlands destruction, yet the Salton Sea was not included in its 5-year-old California Wetlands Program, which is used to acquire sensitive wildlife habitat.
Ironically, Audubon was founded in 1886 largely to prevent the eradication of great egrets, a giant bird once hunted to the brink of extinction to supply hat makers with its silky white plumage. The birds are in sharp decline at the Salton Sea.
"I look at it in some respects as an embarrassment," John Borneman, Audubon's western regional representative, said of Audubon's absence at the Salton Sea.
The Environmental Defense Fund played a key role in forging an agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to transfer 106,100 acre-feet of water from Imperial Valley farms to metropolitan cities by 1994. Conservationists hailed the agreement, although the move will hasten pollution of the sea. Expected future water transfers could devastate Salton Sea wildlife.
Environmentalists do not participate on the Salton Sea Task Force, the study group appointed by Gov. Deukmejian in 1986 to search for solutions for the sea.
"We were asked several years ago to put someone on the Salton Sea Task Force. We could never get anyone to do that. On one was willing to take the time," said Carlos Ayala, former chairman of the Sierra Club chapter in the Salton Sea area.
Since the 1980's, environmentalists have fought aggressively to protect strategic tracts of water for California wildlife.
They Spent thousands of dollars and won court challenges to secure fresh water for Mono Lake, a remote, land-locked basin in the eastern Sierra Nevada suffering from high salinity. And environmentalists continue to battle agricultural interests and bid cities to increase freshwater flows for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary to protect fish and wildlife.
The Salton sea, however, is not part of the campaign to save the state's wetlands.
"It is one of the issues that the environmental community is going to have to address in the future. It is a major resource of the state and there are some major problems in the sea and it's something we're going to have to look at," said Mike Paparian, California director of the Sierra Club.
Groups such as the Sierra Club rely heavily on grassroots momentum to guide their agenda. But local activists have not seized the Salton Sea as a cause.
"Most of our work is done by people volunteering their time on issues like air quality, toxics or desert lands. We just haven't had many people come through our volunteer structure" to demand improvement for the sea, Paparian explained.
The sea is sometimes perceived as the ugly stepchild of environmental causes. It has not fired hearts or triggered rushes of emotion like other imperiled wild lands in California.
Glorious snow-capped Sierra peaks of granite and sapphire blue water frame the shores of Mono Lake. At the Salton Sea, dead fish occasionally wash up and rot on the beach.
The intricate twists and turns of rivers running through the Delta make it a mystery like the Nile. The sea occasionally belches malodorous gases, a symptom of its biological productivity but an unpleasantry sometimes detected up to 50 miles away.
"The Salton Sea lacks some of the natural beauty and there's this fear that something's not quite right in the water," Ayala said. That deters visitors, which in turn reduces the sea's stature, which ultimately shortchanges activism.
In California's never-ending water wars, the sea appears to have become battleground fodder.
As Southern California's population swells beyond 15 million people, the search for enough water for urban areas is more intense than ever. Traditional sources -- Mono Lake, the Delta, Owens river or the Colorado River -- have been effectively blocked or tapped out.
Suddenly, fresh water flowing into the sea stands out as a big, undefended target.
"The Salton Sea is the compromise. People will fight for environmental things up in Northern California and coastal areas. But they're willing to let the Salton Sea go. The environmentalists have made a choice and the choice is the Salton Sea is given up," Ayala said.
Agriculture has dominated the Imperial and Coachella valleys for the past century. Local environmentalists say they have learned to tread carefully around such a formidable foe.
"The Imperial Valley is anti-environmental. It's very conservative. We've got a lot of big companies farming and environmentalists and big companies don't mix down here," Ayala said.
Said Borneman of the Audubon Society, "It's hard to start a chapter by taking on the whole agricultural industry."
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