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The Task of Saving the Salton Sea
The San Diego Union Tribune, March 3, 1998
by Duncan Hunter

HUNTER represents the 52nd Congressional District, which includes eastern San Diego and Imperial counties.

In 1905, the Colorado River flooded the ancient lake bed in the middle of California's southern desert and created an inland body of water 40 miles long and roughly 20 miles wide. This inland sea became the most prolific fishery in America and an important component of the Pacific Waterfowl Flyway.

At the same time, it was continuously recharged with irrigation drain water from 1.5 million irrigated acres in Mexico and the United States. Ultimately, it would become known as the Salton Sea, a recreational playground for hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians.

On any weekend, you could see thousands of pickups and cars, often with boats tied to them, motoring eastward on the freeways from Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego County. These working American families looked forward to a weekend away from the boss -- water-skiing, fishing, hunting or just enjoying the enormity and spaciousness of the California desert.

Ninety years after creation of the Salton Sea, Sonny Bono recognized that a tragedy was developing. The tragedy was manifest partly in a massive inflow of pollutants flowing in by way of the New River -- primarily from Mexicali's industrial and municipal sewage.

The tragedy was also due to the increasing salinity of the Salton Sea. This salinity, a result of 4 million tons of salt deposited into the sea annually, has reached 45 parts per thousand, which is 25 percent to 30 percent more than the ocean.

Bono, in his inevitable style, turned to us, his colleagues and to the Department of Interior and asked the question: "Why can't we fix this?" He then proceeded to organize his colleagues, Reps. Jerry Lewis, George Brown, Ken Calvert and myself into a task force for the purpose of restoring the sea. Bono then succeeded in bringing a focus on the problem by arranging visits to the sea by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

We were in the middle of this "focus" period when Bono left us. But he left us with a legacy that included the Bono guidelines to good government.

First among these guidelines is Bono's position on government action and bureaucracy cutting: "Let's just do it!" -- was Bono's motto. That is the model we want to follow in restoring the Salton Sea. Endless years of studies are not necessary -- we already have lots of studies.

Two major approaches to reducing the salinity level survive an initial scrub. One is the "diking" option. In this option, a portion of the sea is diked off and allowed to become "dead" from increased salinity, so that the remaining portion of seabed can receive the lion's share of fresh incoming water. This option is analogous to cutting off a patient's arm so that his life can be saved.

The second option involves pumping out the heavily saline water and replacing it with surplus water that might be available during a flood year, such as the one El Nino has brought us.

Perhaps a combination of the diking and "pump-in/pump-out" options will be the chosen course. But whichever we choose, the Sonny Bono motto of more action and less bureaucracy will be our guideline.

The bill I introduced last week authorizes $327.5 million to begin the effort. Co-sponsoring the bill are my fellow members of the task force and Speaker Newt Gingrich. Our goals are to stabilize the salinity level and elevation of the sea while ensuring the long-term health of the fish and bird populations.

In turn, we will enhance the sea's potential for recreational use and economic development. Approximately $22.5 million is designated for permitting, environmental analyses and the selection process, which all are to be accomplished within a year's time. The bill proposes $5 million for biological and toxicity studies to determine the causes of recent wildlife die-offs.

A program dedicated to clean-up and marshland development along the New River between the Mexican border and the southern end of the sea will cost $2 million. This promising program will be undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation and the community-based group Desert Wildlife Unlimited, headed by Brawley resident Leon Lesicka. Its successful completion will result in new recreational opportunities for thousands of Californians.

Obviously, the prospects for a restored Salton Sea and New River are dependent on the successful completion of the U.S.-Mexican joint project to detach the Mexicali sewage and industrial waste system from its New River drainage. Groundbreaking for this project is expected this summer.

We are embarking on a massive environmental challenge. If we fail, the Salton Sea will die in just a few years. If we succeed, future generations of Americans will enjoy the sea, as they did in the past, in numbers that exceed the visitors to Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. As we take these first steps, we should reflect on Bono's assessment of the problem when he called the first meeting of the Salton Sea Task Force. "We can get this thing done," he said. And Sonny was right -- in his memory, we will.