A struggling sea


The Salton Sea, one of California’s largest lakes and a safe haven for thousands of migratory birds, is suffering a case of severe dehydration.

Water loss and rising salinity and nutrient concentrations have endangered this saltwater lake in southeastern California. Left untreated, the sea’s ecosystem could collapse within the next few decades, according to the Salton Sea Authority. The state Legislature is currently considering a plan from the California Department of Water Resources that would restore the wetland over the course of 75 years, at a cost of billions of dollars. But with land disputes, uncertain funding, and no one yet designated to implement the plan, migratory birds may have to find a new pit stop.

“The Salton Sea is a body of water that’s there, and it’s dying,” says Michael Walker, the Salton Sea program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Salton Sea has a reputation for naturally disappearing. In the last 2,000 years, similar seas have formed and reformed in the Salton Trough Basin at least three times, with several smaller lakes existing in between. The current lake formed when the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal in 1905. Since then, agricultural runoff has kept the sea full and provided a mixture of nutrients that encouraged wildlife to flourish. The lake is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and at 376 square miles, larger than Lake Tahoe. This desert sea is habitat for marine fish and has become one of the busiest stopovers for birds on the Pacific Flyway. The sea hosts up to 90 percent of America's white pelican population and 40 percent of the threatened Yuma clapper rail, according to the Salton Sea Authority (see our story California strikes a water truce).

But in these drier times, less runoff flows into the sea, the Imperial Valley transfers more water to San Diego and water simply evaporates, concentrating nutrients and raising salinity. At the same time, domestic sewage and industrial waste from places like the New River in Mexicali is running into the sea.

“It’s a soup of stuff that’s not really that great,” says Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea Office for the California Department of Water Resources.

The nitrates, phosphates and salt that formerly nourished and fertilized this sea are now reaching concentrations that are killing the wildlife. Diseases like avian cholera and Type C avian botulism contributed to a massive die-off of 1,400 endangered brown pelicans at the Salton Sea in 1996, a factor that prevented their removal from the endangered species list. And in 1999, more than 7 million tilapia and croaker died from oxygen depletion in the lake.

California's plan would restructure the sea, reducing its size by nearly 50 percent and creating specialized microhabitats for fish and birds. “We know the sea is going to shrink, and we’re trying to make the best of the situation that’s going to happen,” says Hoffman-Floerke.

Early efforts would include a small, 2,000-acre saline habitat that would act as the “seed” for further restoration and bridge the gap between immediate restoration needs and the long-term objective. The revamped Salton Sea would consist of a ring of marine habitat separated by a rock barrier from a central brine, or salt, sink. This “seawater” habitat would have salinity levels equal to the Pacific Ocean and house marine fish that would serve primarily as a food source for migratory birds. Salt marshes totalling about 62,000 acres would border the lake at the north and south ends, and act as habitat for birds, shrimp and vegetation.

Restoration during the 75 years would cost an estimated $8.9 billion to construct and ultimately $142 million per year to run and maintain. Possible funding sources include federal and state grants, private-public partnerships, park user fees, and the Salton Sea Restoration Fund, which currently holds $20 million. So far, the California Legislature has not allocated funding, and there is no government agency designated to manage the plan. But, says Hoffman-Floerke, they expect decisions within the year.

Even if approved, restoration would require collaboration among the federal, tribal and private landowners that share the land around and under the Salton Sea. The federal government owns 90,000 acres of the sea, and the Bureau of Reclamation has proposed its own restoration plan, according to Walker, who says it’s currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget.

The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Tribe, which also owns land under the sea, worries that shrinking sea levels could expose carcinogenic, pollutant-laden dirt that could blow into the air as toxic dust and become the tribe's responsibility to clean up. The tribe is also concerned that California’s proposed plan would undo its ongoing effort to restore sections of wetland.

Joe Loya, tribal resources manager, fears their suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. “We were outnumbered,” he says. The tribe does not have enough money to pay for pollution control of exposed shoreline, and has nowhere to go. “We can’t purchase new tribal land,” says Loya. “We have no other opportunity than to fight this thing.”

Currently, tribal members are trying to open a dialogue with the state Legislature. They want to include protections of water levels to prevent shoreline exposure before the plan is approved, but, says Loya, “The clock is ticking.”

While Hoffman-Floerke acknowledges that the proposed plan does not make everybody happy, she says, it is by no means rigid, and will have to be “tweaked” along the way. “We try to give something to everybody,” she says. “It’s a beginning.”
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