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Salton Sea Restoration Criticized
Environmental News Network, Thursday, February 18, 1999

The Salton Sea is both an officially designated sump for agricultural drainage and valuable habitat for more than 380 bird species.
The Salton Sea is both an officially designated sump for agricultural drainage and valuable habitat for more than 380 bird species.

A California-based environmental think tank issued a report Feb. 10 that criticizes federal and state efforts to restore the Salton Sea to the ecological and recreational haven it was during the 1960s.

According to the report, put out by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, the joint federal-state restoration plan is based too much on reducing the sea's salinity and stabilizing its elevation instead of other, more serious, water quality factors.

The feasibility study, spearheaded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and California's Salton Sea Authority, is not slated for release until Jan. 1, 2000.

The institute's report is critical of the direction this study has taken to date and is intended to steer the restoration effort toward an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable outcome.

The Salton Sea, located 35 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in southeastern California, is the largest inland body of water in the state. It is both an officially designated sump for agricultural drainage and valuable habitat for more than 380 bird species. Agricultural drainage water, high in fertilizer residues, salts and other pollutants, sustains the Salton Sea; yet is also linked to the massive fish kills and chronic bird mortality that characterize the sea.

Increasing concern over the ecological health of the sea in recent years led to the establishment of the joint state-federal restoration effort. The institute's criticism includes:

  • The project's recommendations for restoring the sea are being driven by arbitrary and unrealistic timelines, not by scientific evidence.
  • The project's focus on measures to reduce the sea's salinity and stabilize its elevation flies in the face of evidence that the gravest threats to the ecosystem are attributable to other water quality factors.
  • The project has failed to seriously consider the implications of permitting salinity in the sea to continue to increase, which in the long-term could be the most cost-beneficial and ecologically sound approach.
  • The project has failed to assess the negative ramifications that some of its proposals could have on surrounding ecosystems, such as the Colorado River delta and the Upper Gulf of California.

"Public support for the restoration project is based on the expectation that the plan will improve the ecological health of the Salton Sea," said Jason Morrison, the project director at the institute. "But our analysis shows that the cornerstone of the plan, focusing on stabilizing the salinity and elevation of the sea will not solve the sea's ecological problems.

The Institute's report offers a practical alternative framework for restoration of the sea that emphasizes environmental sustainability and the participation of all affected stakeholders in the Salton basin and Mexico.

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