Southern California's Briny Beast


The long-suffering Salton Sea, notorious for its massive bird and fish die-offs, is finally to be put on an intravenous drip.  A key committee in California’s state Assembly approved a bill last week that would provide $47 million to begin restoring the salty sink to some semblance of health. The full Assembly is expected to rule on the bill soon.

The money is to be used for a test pilot of a large-scale restoration plan put forth by the California Legislative Analysis Office in January. At this early stage, about 300 acres of ponds would be created on the northern and southern ends of the sea, areas where salinity could be calibrated to the benefit of wildlife. The state’s Department of Water Resources could also begin planning a barrier that would turn the sea into a discrete body of water, a “horseshoe lake.”

Where the Salton Sea now festers there was for eons an ephemeral lake whenever the flooding Colorado River overflowed its banks. With no outlet, the floodwater eventually evaporated, and the area reverted to a dry lakebed. Then in 1905, Colorado River water overflowed from a new irrigation canal in the Imperial Valley and the modern-day Sea was born. These days it’s saltier than the Pacific Ocean and expected to become even worse. Yet the Salton provides a stopover and permanent habitat for thousands of birds, more than 270 species.

The fate of the Sea has been debated for decades, with possible solutions ranging from desalination plants to reducing irrigation water use in the Imperial Valley. Some have even suggested it's not worth saving at all.

The full restoration is expected to cost $8.9 billion, and take decades to complete. The birds may benefit if the project is completed, but as Terry Greene Sterling recently noted, the surrounding human inhabitants are likely to lose either way.

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