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The Old Woman And the Sea

By Neal Matthews

California Magazine, March 1982

When the Salton Sea was called the California Riviera, Fishermen, farmers, oil companies -- all have designs on the Salton Sea. So does Helen Burns, whose marina is now beneath its waters.

THE DISTANCES, something about the distances captivated Helen Burns when she first beheld the Salton Sea, and it hasn't yet freed her. Fifty years may have passed--she won't disclose her exact age--but the distances, if nothing else, are still as enervating and stark as they were when she was twelve. She knew instinctively then that the sea was where she would be happiest, and for nearly 30 years, after settling there in 1947, her instincts proved right. But in the mid-1970s her happiness was submerged along with her land beneath the inexorably rising waters of the sea.

California's anomalous sealet lies on the northwestern edge of the Imperial Valley, 150 miles from Los Angeles, nestled between the mountains that demarcate two pitiless deserts--the Anza-Borrego to the west, the Colorado to the east.

The sea is only a few years older than Burns, having been formed in 1905, when the Colorado River was accidentally diverted and rampaged unabated for 16 months through the Imperial Valley and into the Salton Sink, 278 feet below sea level (see The Great Salton Accident). From that accident came California's richest body of water (fishermen rarely come home with only tall tales), and its largest (35 miles long, 13 miles wide). For nearly 80 years, against all predictions, this unlikely sea has stubbornly clung to life. Yet its survival remains in doubt as energy companies, fishermen, local residents, farmers, and various government agencies tussle over whose interests the sea should satisfy--and whether its life is worth saving.

When the Salton Sea was called theCalifornia riviera Helen Burns ran a thriving marina that included a rstaurant and bar. Now it all lies about 10 yards offshore, and she waits for the sea to return it.

Outwardly the sea looks very much the same today as it did when Helen Burns first saw it in the 1930s: the overwhelming spaciousness emphasized by the water's immense and reflective surface, combined with the sparse shoreline development, make for a pacific magnetism. The serenity is augmented by an incredible number and variety of birds festooning the water and sky. But what you don't see are the thousands of acres of shoreline inun-dated by the sea's steady rise, and the marinas, motels, houses, trailers, and dreams that have drowned. Invisible are the millions of fish that make the sea one of the best fishing spots in the West, swimming perilously close to oblivion due to the water's high salt content. Unseen is the potentially enormous natural gas deposit directly beneath the sea, which has prompted oil companies to apply for leases on nearly one-third of the sea's surface, hoping someday to build drilling platforms on and near the water. Also unapparent to the eye is the large deposit of geothermal heat beneath and beside the sea, an energy source so promising that as many as 28 geothermal plants for the area are now on the drawing boards.

The sea belongs to everybody and to nobody, lying as it does in two counties, two congressional districts, and within the purview of enough boards and agencies to deliver its administration unto anarchy. Farmers are eyeball-to-eyeball with local residents; the fishermen are feeling imperiled by the energy harvesters; and what's good for the landowners--a lowering of the water level--is definitely bad for the fish, which cannot survive the ensuing rise in salinity. Everyone says the last thing he wants is to harm the delicate sea. But, in keeping with its setting, a quiet, mostly invisible, but grand fight is under way.

One a fairway at the Salton Sea Country Club, once lush and now abandoned, a lone golfer drives his ball toward a green that is now brown.

ALMOST EVERY DAY, from her small pink house in the modest village of Salton Sea Beach on the western shore, Helen Burns walks the few hundred yards to the water's edge. "Yeah, it's beautiful down here," she says, "if you don't think about the past." That past, which Burns is determined to revive, waits under the salty water about 100 yards offshore, where she first opened a little soda and souvenir stand in 1947. It was nothing but a palm-thatched shack stocked with Nehi and smoked mullet, which was fished commercially from the sea. Her first customers were illegal aliens from Mexico making their way north through the desert, and it wasn't long before her seaside shack became a favorite stop on the Mexicans' underground pilgrimage. Few people and fewer houses were around then; the area was just an unending fusion of sky, desert, salt water, and heat--lots of heat. Developers were planning a small clubhouse and motel directly across the sea from Helen's place, on the northeast shore.

Shortly after her shack opened for business, Burns made a sign and proudly posted it: 241 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL. Were she to post a sign today it would be beside the watery ruins of her little enterprise and she would do it sadly: 228 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL, a rise in the water level of thirteen feet. fishermen now call the underwater motel and clubhouse on the eastern shore "Sunken City." The rising water has caused as much as $13 million in property damage, if all the lawsuits against the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which distributes water in the valley, can be believed.

The migrating Mexicans helped Helen Burns move her shack back away from the water the first time the sea wanted it, in the early 1950s. That was just the first of four such moves over the next 10 years. Then the local ranchers and farm workers began to visit.

The Friday-night parties at Helen's Beach House became all night local rituals. The Mexicans taught the landowners and roadworkers how to dance the mambo. Burns's recollection of those days is tinged with a nostalgic yearning. "We went to sleep when it got dark," she says, the long ago good times etched in her soft eyes. "and we woke up when it go light. We lived outside, in the sun."

Burns who was divorced and had two small children, hauled ice in from Indio, 28 miles to the north. She trucked in her own well water. There was no electricity or telephone. She scrubbed her two daughters' diapers at the flowing well behind Travertine Rock, up the road a piece.

Like the succession of rings on a tree, the passing of the years was marked by each new crowd at Helen's Beach House. The water-skiers discovered the sea in the early 1950s, just before the land speculators moved in on what was undoubtedly the new California Riviera. For a while the skiers and Mexicans partied together at Helen's, but that was shortlived. A Mexican would ask a skier's girlfriend to dance, and that was it. The outdoor, palm-fringed dance floor would erupt into regular Friday night fracases. Burns can still see the young men clutching knives and leaping from her roof onto the patio. By the early sixties the Mexicans and the mambo were gone; the skiers owned the place, and they were twisting the desert nights away.

By then the fishermen had discovered the sea, too, as had the boat races and resort promoters. The water was said by the racers to be the fastest in the country, given its consistent flatness and higher density. Burns subdivided some property she had (her father was the original landowner at Salton Sea Beach) in order to finance the dredging of a little harbor, the construction of a small island serviced by a steel bridge, the planting of Washingtonia palms, and the building of 105 thatched cabanas along her white sand beaches. Her little shack grew into a store, restaurant, bar, and marina. She even installed three gas pumps and a fuel dock. On weekend nights her beaches were crowded with sleeping bags arrayed around beach fires. It was a funky South Seas hideaway, close enough to Los Angeles to pick up the Top 40 radio stations.

In the late sixties the skiers started to drift away from Helen's to the fresher waters of Lake Havasu, on the California-Arizona border. But they were supplanted at the bar by the developers, architects, engineers, surveyors, and construction workers who were building Salton City, the imagined hub of a great seaside resort, seven miles south. The developers couldn't stomach the hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches the ski crowd was content with, so Burns hired a chef, Don Carlos, who ceaselessly sang, "I wonder who's kissing her now--who cares!" with a Spanish accent while he cooked bouillabaisse and tournedos of beef and lobster Newburg.

The Great Salton Accident
How a sink became a sea.

THE SALTON SEA WASN'T SUPPOSED to happen. At the turn of the century, farmers were discovering the Imperial Valley--and discovering the need to tap the Colorado river. So engineers working for the California Development Company, which promoted and sold the farmland in the valley, dredged two intake gorges on the banks of the rivers, just north of the Mexican border. Water flowed freely into the company's canals, uncontrolled by floodgates. For three years the river benevolently obliged the farmers, and the farmland multiplied along with the valley's population. But in the summer of 1904 the two intakes became completely clogged with tons of silt the river had deposited. The flow of water in the canals stopped. Farmers, faced with ruin, demanded that the California Development Company do something.

The pressure to move quickly was probably the main reason the company opted to excavate another intake, south of the Mexican border. The new cut was made in October 1904. Again, no controlling floodgates were installed, an omission later realized to be a grave error.

When several storms dumped water into the river, the banks of the new intake canal were quickly washed away. One year after the new gorge had been cut, the entire Colorado had buttonhooked northwest and was tearing through the Imperial Valley, filling the Salton Sink, 278 feet below sea level. No water was entering the Gulf of California through a river's previous channel.

The disaster was too big for the California Development Company to handle. Settlers began to lose property and hope; many left the valley. The company went bankrupt, and it was left to the Southern Pacific Railroad, whose tracks through the desert were threatened by the rising sea, to wrestle the river back onto its natural course.

But after two difficult and costly attempts to build a dam across the 1, 200-foot-wide breach in the riverbank, the railroad's resolve wavered. In December 1906 the Southern Pacific was forced to appeal to the federal government for aid. President Theodore Roosevelt was able to give only vague assurances that the government would help pay for the work, but he was most insistent that the railroad had to restore the river to its rightful course.

In 1907, the Southern Pacific redoubled its efforts to build a dam across the breach. A crew of railroad workers, local Indians, and drifters recruited in Yuma, Arizona, Constructed a railroad trestle across the rushing water. Over a period of fifteen days, in shifts around the clock, workers dumped trainloads of boulders and gravel into the river. Finally, in early February, the Colorado stopped flowing into the Salton Sea and began emptying once again into the Gulf of California.

For want of one good floodgate, California saw perhaps the greatest engineering achievement of the young century--the rerouting of the West's mighty river. And the state was left with a monument to that achievement and the blunder that prompted it: a vast, placid desert sea. N.M.

The rampaging Colorado created the sea and massive problems for a waterlogged railroad.

Then, in the early 1970s, the developers departed. Thirty thousand lots had been subdivided and sold at Salton City and another development, Vista del Mar. Hun-dreds of miles of residential streets had been built, sewers had been installed, a golf course was flourishing, and marinas were packed with fishermen. The only things the developers didn't provide were houses. So when they left Helen's Beach House there weren't many people to belly up in their wake. The people who had bought the lots did so for the same reason the de-velopers subdivided: someday this was going to be the new riviera, the new Palm Springs, and when that day came this land would be worth bundles. The future sold the land, and the future owned it-and still does. You can buy a 125-foot-by-75-foot lot today at Vista del Mar for $4,000, placing $71 down and paying $65.40 a month, with no interest. And be assured, you won't have any neighbors if you decide to actually live on it. Enough lots, streets, and services for a community of 80,000 people now wait eerily empty, save for about 800 souls, at Salton City and Vista del Mar.

By the time the developers abandoned the sea, its level was rising steadily. And in this period of the sea's evolution the salinity was rising with it. A second government study in five years reemphasized what everybody already knew: without a desalinization effort, the fish would soon begin dying off, and along with them would go many of the birds. The bad publicity generated by these doomsday pre-dictions had helped slow the developers' momentum. How could a riviera flourish on a dead sea? The Mexicans were long gone, the skiers were at Lake Havasu, and the boat racers had no races to compete in since the developers, who had fostered the Salton Sea 500 as a promotion gimmick, had left with their profits. Only about 1,500 people lived along the 125 miles of shoreline. Helen's Harbor began to sink slowly into the rising waters. Eventually all that was left were the two tall white light poles sticking up like grave markers out of the sea and the rows of stumps barely jutting above the water along the submerged road that used to lead out to the swimmers' and skiers' beaches.

By 1976 the marinas to the north and south of Salton Sea Beach, and those on the eastern shore, about a dozen in all, had also succumbed to the rising waters. The nearby golf course, which had been a ver-dant jewel; was abandoned to the desert, the palms along its brown fairways dying in the parched heat, a flagpole here and there sticking forlornly above a brown green. It's hard to believe now there could be such a situation," says Helen Burns, standing on the tiny shred of beach that is all that remains of her once thriving business. She breathes deeply of the remaining elements that started her affair with the Salton Sea: the distances, the silent pastels, the emptiness, a strange stillness in which only the dry wind outsings the birds.

IF ONLY THE SEA HAD REMAINED just a gigantic gutter of agri-cultural runoff, which is its pri-mary function, then people wouldn't have become attached to it. A seed of this attachment, the abundant fish, were planted artificially by man in this artificial sea in the early 1950s and have since formed their own ecosystems. Ironically, the surge of flooding that finally wiped out Helen's Harbor and millions of dollars worth of other property in the mid-seventies actually saved the fish population-at least for the time being. But the relief the property owners want most, a lowering of the water level, will undoubtedly speed the demise of the fish because it will increase the sea's salinity level.

Over the decades the sea has become increasingly salty. As the farmland in the Imperial Valley expanded, larger amounts of salt entered through the sea's main in-lets, the New and Alamo rivers at the southern end. Now more than 5 million tons of salt are deposited in the sea every year, originating in both the alkaline soil of the valley and the ever increasing salinity of the Colorado Riviera; 50 miles to the east. Since the sea lies in a deep trough and has no natural outlets, its salinity continuously climbs as pure water evaporates in the desert heat and leaves behind the salt.

Biologists assume that the resident cor-vina, sargo, and talapia, the main sport fish, will no longer be able to reproduce when the salinity reaches 40,000 parts per million. The sea was about to nudge that level, which is much saltier than the ocean, when tropical storms Kathleen and Doreen brought desert floods in 1976 and 1977. The influx of fresh water reduced the salinity, helping the fish, but wreaked havoc by flooding the property owners. Now that the water level is slowly dropping, sparking hope for better days among Burns and her neighbors, the fish are swimming the plank. When the sub merged marinas are back on the edge of dry land they may not be of much use to fishermen. "The thing about the sea," observes one local, "is you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."

Assuming the prolific wildlife in and around the sea is worth preserving, an assumption not universally held, the damned-if-you-do principle seems to apply to the impending energy development on and near the sea. "We want to see the Arabs off our backs like everybody else, but not at the expense of the fishery," says Ron Ackert, a leader of the local effort to save the sea's wildlife. Area sportsmen are loudly asserting that, given the sea's delicate balance (a result of having no outlets), even a minor spill of oil or geother-mal waste could devastate the ecology Arid it takes no great flight of imagination to see that the near future may bring a specific choice between survival of the sea or development of energy.

So many agencies and empires--the counties of Riverside and Imperial, the layered and overlapping bureaucracies of California and the United States have a direct or oblique say in what happens to the sea (since they all own large chunks of land there) that it's not hard to find opposite intents at work. The California Department of Fish and Game, for instance, is considering adoption of a strongly worded policy statement on the sea that calls for tough preservation measures and opposition to developments that would harm the ecosystems. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency, is studying a water conservation plan in the Imperial Valley that, if fully applied, would decrease the sea's surface area by about half by the year 2005. Needless to say, this would kill the sea's fish and wildlife and drive the remaining humans away. Add to that plan the area's 28 proposed geothermal power stations, which may end up using water from the sea or its tributaries for cooling and injection into the underground thermal pools, and the outlook for the sea's biological survival is extremely clouded.

Water, water everywhere: When the sea's level rises, it can mean misery for some-such as those residents of Bombay Beach (above) who lost their homes to the floods of1976 and 1977. But the tropical storms that caused the flooding also dumped fresh water into the salt-choked sea good news for Willard Woolen far left) and ranger Tex Ritter (shown on the beach at Salton Sea state park). They are fishermen who worry that a rise in salinity will kill their prey.

A giant puddle of heat energy, capable of producing 4,500 megawatts of elec-tricity, underlies the sea and its environs, and within the decade there could be a dozen geothermal plants siphoning power near its shores, on both land and water. The current method of extracting mile-deep heat has led Imperial County to require that water be injected back into the earth to replenish the fluids taken Out. Neglecting this step of the process would abet the already considerable problem of land subsidence--settling of the ground--in the Imperial Valley Where will this injection water come from? It appears now that it won't be coming from the sea itself, but rather from the sea's lifeblood: the runoff water leaving the farmlands. And less water coming in means a surge of salinity for the sea.

But perhaps the strongest threat posed by geothermal development is the increased seismic activity it is known to create. The Imperial Valley is one of the most seismically active areas in the country, with nine fault lines crosshatching the Salton Sea region. Experts don't know yet whether geothermal development will help reduce earthquake risk by stimulating several small quakes, thereby relieving seismic pressure, or whether sucking out the earth's juices will trigger a big one. Bombay Beach, a dusty cross between a fisherman's hamlet and a retirement refuge on the southeast shore of the sea, population about 500, has recently been fingered by earthquake specialists as possibly the next epicenter of a major temblor on the San Andreas fault. Bombay Beach also happens to be only fifteen miles from a nearly completed geothermal plant. Just how earthquakes will affect the sea, the geothermal plants and their hazardous wastes, and the delicate sloping of the valley, which conveniently allows gravity to transport water to the farms, the residents, and the sea, remains an ominous mystery.

For some Salton Sea residents, the benefits of geothermal development far out-weigh the risks. For others the most important question is who will have the final say on decisions that could eventually kill the sea's wildlife. Technically the sea's waters belong to the people of the state of California.

"The issue is, the life or death of the biggest and richest lake in the state shouldn't be decided in a couple of boardrooms," says Tex Ritter, the chief ranger at Salton Sea State Recreation Area, on the northeast shore. "It should be the peoples' decision. And it's coming quick."

CLOISTERED BOARDROOMS and quick decisions now seem more distant than on the northern horizon snow capped San Jacinto, over the indigo waters into which 67-year-old Willard Woolen, possibly the best fisher-man on the sea, sinks his lure. Southward, off the stern of his small boat, the sun lays down a silver veneer out of which juts low-slung Mullet Island. Behind the island the world seems to fall away into nothing. To the east, the sea's deep greens fade into the rich browns of the Chocolate Mountains; to the southwest the morning water quickens to gunbarrel blue before shimmering into azure on the slopes. of Superstition Mountain. As always, the desert sky is a streaked enamel bubble. The peace is palpable. The scene conspires in the false impression that this sheet of water and the life within it have always been here and always will be.

Woolen keeps his Evinrude idling on the theory that corvina are attracted to the noise. He and his two fishing buddies, Al Chaffee and Del Jaclsson, stare intently into the water. The men, all in their sixties, are concentrating on the thin monofilament disappearing beneath them. The sea's greatest depth is only about 50 feet, and we have just about reached that now Woolen chatters, calling to the fish as if he were summoning a wary house cat; We have been here only five minutes, and already he thinks it's too long without a strike. He begins to stomp on the wooden deck to make more noise. Presently, everybody is hauling in two and three-pound corvina. "One year," chuckles Woolen from beneath his blue baseball cap, "I fed all of Bombay Beach and half of Los Angeles."

Willard Woolen is a retired produce man from Ontario who has been fishing the sea for 22 years. He has spent winters in a trailer at Bombay Beach for the last ten years, fishing more or less daily and hitting the road with his wife when the summer heat turns the sea into a 90-degree cauldron. He is a contented and gen-tle man, yet he and Helen Burns have become unwitting combatants. He is one of hundreds of hardcore fishermen, both seasonal and permanent residents, who think the Salton Sea provides the best fishing in the state, if not the whole country and are glad to fight for it. Woolen and his comrades tell stories of the twelve- and fifteen- and twenty-pound corvina that used to be landed routinely. But now the big ones don't seem to be biting as often, and some fishermen think it's due to the proliferation of another fish, the talapia, which have become an easy food source for the corvina.

The corvina were planted in the sea in 1951,just one of more than 30 fish species the Department of Fish and Game brought up from the Gulf of California. The corvina, sargo, and gulf croaker were the only fish that caught on and spawned, and for twenty years now it's been difficult to fish for an afternoon and not catch the limit of corvina (nine) and ice chests full of sargo and talapia. The corvina have in fact grown so healthy and strong that Texas game officials recently took some from the sea for transplantation in the Gulf of Mexico, where the fish don't appear naturally.

The talapia were introduced to the sea accidentally, having swum in through the irrigation canals, where they are used to keep the weed growth down. Small species of mollies also may have come in accidentally from a now defunct tropical fish farm near the All-American canal, along the east shore; the ubiquitous barnacles, which quickly beard any structure left in the watei, were introduced inadvertently, it is assumed, by the navy seaplanes that flew in from San Diego Bay for training missions during World War II.

Like corvina, talapia are excellent eating fish. But unlike their larger predators, you can take as many talapia as you like. People regularly cart off two ice chests full of talapia in a day, all caught on a line from shore. Though no fish from the sea is supposed to be taken commercially, ranger Tex Ritter knows better. He has overheard fishermen say that all they have to do is pull up on a poor street in L.A. and yell, "Fish!" and they can sell all they catch. Just last December game wardens busted an illegal gillnetting operation on the sea that was being run from San Diego by several Southeast Asian refugees. The fish they were apprehended with mostly very large corvina-weighed almost 3,000 pounds and were estimated to be worth about $9,000.

Woolen reels in his fourth or fifth corvina of the morning and slides it into a floating creel. He surveys the western shore before casting again, searching for the telltale cloud of dust that signals an oncoming blow. When the wind kicks up the sea can turn from a glassy, sleepy pond without a ripple into a rocking, crashing, deadly ocean in just minutes. There have been several drownings over the years, some of them especially gruesome. Woolen tells of the day eight or nine years ago when he and his wife, Dorothy, were out fishing after a big blow in which two men had lost their boat. One fisherman valiantly towed the other until exhaustion forced him to save only himself. After ten days searchers hadn't been able to turn up any sign of the other man. While motoring toward a favorite fishing hole, Woolen spotted something in the water near the western shore. His wife begged him not to check it out, but Woolen had to. Sure enough, "it was the fella who'd been miss-ing," he says. "He was bloated up like a pig, floating on his back with his eyes open." Dorothy hasn't gone out in the boat since.

Such experiences seem to temper the bond between fishermen and the sea. As these stories are told and retold in the beer joints along the shore, where a shaker of salt is usually served up with every draft, the fishermen's sense of the sea's permanence is annealed. The sea is not an ephemeral, transitory freak of agriculture to them; hell, people have died out there. That ups the stakes somehow

So it really wasn't all that surprising that in December 1980, when word got around that the federal government was processing Chevron's application to ex-plore for oil and gas directly beneath the sea, the sportsmen reacted vociferously. They formed the Salton Sea Fish and Wildlife Club and demanded protection for the environment. What is surprising is that they may have gotten it. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), after a boisterous meeting with the locals, almost immediately pulled back on its plans to issue leases. Chevron was, and still is, talking about building platforms out on the water, constructing islands, slant drilling from shore, and drilling straight down beside the sea. (Energy developers have applied for leases on most of the federal land in southeastern California, including the Salton Sea area, largely in the wake of Mexico's huge 1981 natural gas discovery in the Gulf of California.) All of it sounded nightmarish to the sportsmen, who argued that just a small oil or refuse spill could irreparably harm the fish and birds. In early 1981 they succeeded in getting the BLM to postpone the issuance of exploration leases for at least a year, to allow for more public comment and to expand the environmental assessment process.

"The general public didn't know what was happening until the club started screaming," says Woolen as he steers his little blue boat back toward Bombay Beach. In three hours the fishermen have each hobked their limit of corvina. The fierce link between the sportsmen and the sea caught the federal bureaucrats by sur-prise. Like the general public, the feds weren't even sure if there was fish life in the sea. "They wanted to put platforms out here," Woolen says incredulously as his squinty eyes sweep the sharp blueness. He doesn't believe he'll see it, but they still might put platforms out here someday. "We're trying to save it for the younger people," he says, "not for ourselves."

THE FISH AND WILDLIFE CLUB knows that the threats posed by the oil and gas exploration are still some years ahead, and many people believe the club's ability to write letters and employ pressure tactics might in-deed have an effect on the way local energy development progresses. On the other hand, Helen Burns--who hopes to reestablish the bar and restaurant some-day--and her neighbors wouldn't mind seeing platforms on the sea and geother-mal plants on the shore as soon as possible, because the resulting influx of people would advance the local economy. Also, they figure that the more people living and working around the sea-there are now fewer than 5,000--the more political clout the area would have in dealing with its many woes.

No group or agency is grappling with the most serious and immediate of those woes-the rising salinity. "There's a good possibility that within two to five years we'll have a spawning problem," Ritter says on a recent day off as he cleans a bunch of talapia and sargo in the state park's fish cleaning shack. He has been the local park ranger since 1975, and at that time the salinity was just less than 40,000 parts per million, the critical level for the fish. Then the tropical storms hit. By 1978 the salinity had decreased to 36,400 parts per million. Since then the salt level has been climbing. In September 1981 the salinity had reached 39,500 parts per million. Ritter fears the water level has topped out, and, barring the remote chance of another major flood, the salinity will climb sharply as the water level sinks.

He deftly slices open a fish belly from rectum to gills and yanks out the guts. "Three hundred and sixty square miles of water, and it's going to be dead--the fish and the birds," he says. His knife edge cuts along both sides of the dorsal fin, down in front of the tail, and then down behind the pectoral fins. "The Salton Sea is the best inland fishery in the state. It could produce more food, more protein per acre, than the surrounding farmland. You think if this lake was in Japan they'd let it die? Hell no! They'd be cultivating the hell out of it."

He guts another talapia. "The problem is, there's no agency in charge of the sea, like they have at Lake Tahoe--a commission. The potential is staggering. But look who's fishing it. Retired people and minorities. They haven't got any clout." He grabs another fish. Ritter is well acquainted with the sea's inertia, and he is not optimistic about its future.

There have been numerous proposals over the years to control the sea's salinity problems, and they've run the gamut. In the late sixties there was a flurry of talk about dredging a canal from the sea all the way to the Gulf of California, a distance of about 100 miles, and installing a series of locks for the transference of water. A more practical proposal envisioned pipelines snaking from the sea to the gulf, providing both water-level stabilization and salinity control. Like a lot of other plans, this one faded into oblivion.

The idea that progressed the furthest was the 4-square-mile "diked impoundment," or evaporation pond. A 27-mile-long dam would have been built across a portion of the sea's southern flank, forming a pond. As the impounded water evaporated, water from the sea would have been let in, creating an outlet so that not all of the salts entering the sea would remain in it, as they now do. It was estimated that this project could have reduced the salinity to about 35,000 parts per million, roughly the same as the ocean, in eight years.

But the plan, in the end, was not on fate's agenda. In the early sixties, when it started to look as though the sea might in fact be the next riviera, the water became an object of intense scrutiny. Approximately twenty federal and state agencies made salt control studies. A conventional wisdom was developed, and it was un-equivocal: without drastic control measures the abundant fish would be wiped out by the 1980s. Some of the local residents began a save-the-sea campaign and prevailed on their Republican congressman, Victor Veysey, to take an interest in the salinity problem. Veysey pushed through Congress several bills that called for more studies, and once it became obvious that the giant, $58 million evaporation pond was the best plan, he helped obtain federal money to test the sea floor and determine whether that material could be used for the dam (it couldn't).

Then the dominoes fell. In 1974, Veysey was ejected from the district by congressional reapportionment, and the sea was bisected by new political lines. Republican Clair Burgener, who represented parts of San Diego and Orange counties, now had the southern two-thirds of the sea in his district, and Republican Jerry L. Pettis, who represented part of Riverside County, had the northern third. The new congressional boundaries ran along the same line that separates the sea into Imperial County in the south and Riverside County in the north. Burgener tried but couldn't generate much interest in Washington; Pettis was beginning to take an interest in the sea, but he died in a plane crash in 1975. The rest of the save-the-sea momentum died when the economy sank into a deep recession and President Ford put a clamp on federal spending. Then the casket was latched: in 1975 the Department of Interior sent a letter to a local preservation committee acknowledging that desalinization was possible, but it would have to be done without the financial help of the federal government. It was just not worth the expense, according to the feds. Fifteen years of hope and work had fizzled down to the recurring knell: the sea is going to die anyway; let it.

HELEN BURNS SITS ON A concrete boulder beside her tiny spit of beach and tries to convey the importance of the sounds around her. "There used to be a whole line of cabanas along here," she says. "When the wind blew the palm fronds rattled." That rattling, combined with the lapping of the water and the calling of the birds, was what Helen's Harbor specialized in. "It's soul food," she muses. "And I think people need that even more now than before."

It would be impossible to find anyone more dedicated to the sea's interests than Helen Burns. So it can only be seen as a black irony that the lawsuit she and many of her neighbors filed to stop the rise of the water and thereby preserve the sea's recreational value has activated such a stringent water conservation effort in the Imperial Valley that it appears the water level will be continuously falling from now on, the fish slowly disappearing.

The lawsuit was filed in 1976 by 37 shoreline property owners against the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which holds in trust the water rights of the valley's farmers and controls distribution of irrigation water to their 450,000 cultivated acres. The property owners retained a scrappy attorney, Lowell Suther-land of El Centro, who set out to prove that the recently drastic rise of the sea's level was totally unnecessary; that it was due mainly to wasted water that never touched an agricultural field, and that this constituted negligence on the part of the IID. He argues that the tropical storms wouldn't have been so devastating if the district hadn't already dumped so much unused water into the sea.

Before the jury last year Sutherland presented his case as if it were a detective story. The amount of water entering the sea from the IID every year is about 1.1 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.) One of Sutherland's experts, Bill Gookin, an irrigation engineer from Scottsdale, Arizona, had to track where all that water was coming from, since there are only three ways it can exit the IID's system: as leach water that has been flushed down through the fields to extract the salts that are a constant problem in the alkaline soil; as wastewater; a certain amount of which is allowed to every farmer; and as spillage, the dumping into drainage ditches by the IID of canal water that has never touched the surface of a field. Through relatively simple calculation and observation, Gookin determined that leach water and allowable waste totaled about 550,000 acre-feet, or only about half of the volume entering the sea from the IID. The rest, he figured, had to be spillage of water that was never used.

But how could this be proved, since the IID claimed to monitor spillage closely and disputed that it was wasting a significant amount of water? Sutherland had a plan to prove that Gookin's calculations were correct. He hired some high school kids to measure and photograph spillage Out of 21 IID canals for a three-month period. The photographic evidence was dramatic: torrential cascades of precious water gushed unused before the stunned jury. The frequency of spillage the high school sleuths witnessed was also dra-matic: water was being dumped 61 percent of the time they monitored.

The information acutely embarrassed the IID. Sutherland would ask an official on the stand if his records showed spillage occuring at a certain time on a specific day, and when the official answered no, the attorney would produce a photograph of spilling water taken at the moment in question. Not only was the record-keeping of the IID impugned by the facts, but Gookin was able to determine that about 1,515 acre-feet were being dumped through the spillways every day, or about 550,000 acre-feet annually. Gookin added this to the 550,000 acre-feet already accounted for, and it totaled the 1.1 million acre-feet known to be entering the sea.

Sutherland admits that his sampling wasn't justified statistically. "But viscerally," he says, "I feel pretty good about it." Evidently so did the jury. It took only 45 minutes to decide that the IID was negligent in its water management and that the damaging rise in the Salton Sea was due to the district's unnecessary waste of more water every year than the city of Los Angeles uses. The damage phase of the suit started last month. The IID is planning to appeal.

So did Helen Burns lose her marina, harbor, store, her little island with the bridge, and her 105 cabanas because millions of gallons of water, ordered by the Imperial Irrigation District, left Hoover Dam, rushed down the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley, through the canals, and finally collected in the Salton Sea without ever moistening a dirt clod? A jury chosen from the farming community was convinced that is exactly what happened.

Now water conservation has taken a strong hold in the valley, and the sea has begun to drop. That's good news for Helen Burns. For the fishermen, that's not such good news. About the only hope the sea has now for survival as an ecosystem is the remote possibility, being strongly urged by some Salton Sea lovers, that a task force can be assembled and provided with the power and the money--and the will--to save it.

There are so many ifs and so little time, though the desert's agelessness seems to allow the sea all the time in the universe. Indeed, some biologists, having been predicting the fishery's death for 25 years, have stopped predicting at all and are now as hopeful as Helen Burns of better days to come. On her daily trips down to her fragment of beach, Burns is still taken with the elements, which are just as they were when she first came here as a girl. And yet, how different it is at the same time.

"Look at this," she says, gesturing over the wide blue waters, empty of boats. "look how beautiful it is here, and there's nobody. Ten years ago on a Sunday like this it would have been packed with skiers." It used to be a different place. On the wall of her Beach House, she kept a plaque inscribed with all the names of the people who swam the thirteen miles across the sea. "People don't swim anymore," she mumbles, gouging the sand with her old tennis shoe. "They jog." She looks out into the quickening chop where her little island used to be and fondly recalls the rare brown pelican that took up residence on the steel bridge every winter. For eleven years, from 1967 to 1978, that was the pelican's roost, and he would only leave it to find food or to let a pesky sunbather across. Helen Burns hasn't seen that pelican since the sea claimed the bridge.

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