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Know the West

Accidental refuge: Should we save the Salton Sea?


BOMBAY BEACH, Calif. - Steve Horvitz, the superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, keeps a copy of the movie Chinatown on his office bookshelf. He's seen the tale of ruthless Los Angeles water barons many times, and it still makes him angry, but he doesn't watch it as often as he used to. After nearly 10 years on the shores of the Salton Sea, he doesn't need to be reminded that California water can be a melodramatic business.

A few years ago, he gave a talk about the inland sea to a busload of staffers from Southern California water agencies.

"After we finished, everybody else was on the bus, and one guy was just waiting there," he says. "This guy walks over, looks at me, and says, "Do you know that about 1.3 million acre-feet of water go in the sea every year?" "I know," I say. Then he says, "That water's worth a lot of money," and I say "Yeah, that's right."

"And then he says - just like this, in these words, I'll never forget it - he says, "We want it, we're going to take it, and you can't stop us." Just like that."

Horvitz glances at the flocks of gulls outside his window. "He's probably right, is the thing of it," he says reflectively. "And he's certainly right if there isn't a swelling of public support for the Salton Sea."

As Hollywood types might say, the sea has a serious image problem. Fish die by the millions nearly every summer, victims of the water's increasing salinity and nutrient load. The national wildlife refuge at the south end of the sea devotes most of its energy to managing cholera and botulism outbreaks, which kill thousands of birds every year. Coastal cities want to use the water in the sea to support their booming populations. Although many biologists say this is a precious piece of wildlife habitat - California has already lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands - even some environmentalists say it's time to give up on it, and focus instead on the recovering habitats in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.

Yet shifting political forces have recently given the Salton Sea and its wildlife another chance, and the sea's defenders are grasping for it.

"If we strike out this time, the systems of the sea are going to collapse in the near future," says Horvitz. "Every year, millions upon millions of birds migrate through here, and if we lose the Salton Sea, we may lose that flyway. We may very well lose the Pacific Flyway."

A lesson in contrasts

Think of the ingredients of a desert: quiet creosote flats, craggy mountain ranges with picturesque names, secretive wildlife, empty space. Turn the heat on high, and add pieces of a tropical paradise: more than 420 billion gallons of salt water, 384 species of birds, about 200 million introduced marine fish, and endless green, irrigated fields of citrus, dates, grapes and artichokes. Shake well, add a twist of bitter politics, and get ready to swallow hard. You've got an unstable cocktail called the Salton Sink.

"There's nothing about the Salton Sea other than contrasts," says Horvitz. "That's it; it's a huge lesson in contrasts."

No kidding. A first-time visit to the Salton Sea's corner of southeastern California does feel like the end of an overindulgent cocktail hour, a fragmented world that doesn't quite fit together. And the feeling doesn't wear off quickly, because there's a lot of it to take in. This has been a crazy-quilt place for over 100 years.

The Salton Sink, at 227 feet below sea level, is downhill from almost everything, including water. Although the basin has long been separated from the Gulf of California by a ridge of sediment deposited by the Colorado River, it's still connected to the Colorado Delta through several river corridors. For eons, floods from the silt-laden rivers formed temporary lakes in the basin; bands of the Cahuilla Tribe lived on fish and birds from a prehistoric lake once 26 times as large as the Salton Sea.

In the late 1800s, Anglo speculators realized the basin's fertile soil could be the foundation of an agricultural empire - if only the river could be made to work for them.

They wasted no time. In 1901, the private Colorado Development Co. cut the riverbank near Yuma, Ariz., and brought water through Mexico and into the Salton Sink. The basin was renamed the Imperial Valley, and within three years, more than 7,000 settlers were fighting for the valley's land.

Then the Colorado fought back. By the summer of 1904, sediment in the river had clogged the development company's main canal. Faced with a runaway demand for water in the Imperial Valley, the company made a new cut in the river's bank, this one a few miles south in Mexican territory. The chief engineer failed to install a controlling gate, banking on low flows until he could get approval for the project from the Mexican government. He lost the gamble in a spectacular way.

The flooding began in early 1905; by June, the entire Colorado River was flowing through the unprotected cut and into the Imperial Valley. At the height of the flood, more than 250,000 acres of valley farmland were underwater. It took more than a year and a half of massive effort to redirect the river.

Almost everyone assumed the water would quickly evaporate. In 1909, the Department of the Interior even reserved 10,000 underwater acres for the Torres-Martinez Band of the Cahuilla Tribe. But no one counted on the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the Imperial Valley and the Mexicali Valley, just over the international border to the south. Drainage from those fields rolled down to the Salton Sink through the New, Alamo and Whitewater rivers, and by the 1920s, it was clear to most observers that the new lake wasn't going away.

So the federal government gave in to reality and designated the lake as a permanent agricultural sump in 1924. Today, the fluctuating lake is about 35 miles long and from nine to 15 miles wide. As a sump, it has no outlet and limited sources of fresh water, and most of the water coming in is full of nutrients from farm fertilizers.

"The place is an incredible soup, almost a primordial soup, because it's so nutrient-rich," says Eugenia McNaughton, who works on U.S.-Mexico border issues for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "It's a really wacky system."

But if this primordial soup was here to stay, wondered some speculators, why couldn't it become the Salton Sea, complete with its own Riviera? So in the late 1950s, real-estate dealers tried to sell the Salton Sea as a working-class desert playground, a cut-rate Palm Springs complete with introduced marine fish. They succeeded, for a while. Tourists and new residents flooded the area, and so many visitors came to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area that traffic on the highway was often jammed in both directions. For many years, the sea had more visitors than Yosemite National Park.

"I first came out here with my gang from high school in 1949," remembers Norm Niver, who's lived near the Salton Sea for nearly 30 years. "We went swimming over at the north shore, and it just amazed me. From that point, you look at the Salton Sea and it looks like the ocean, there's even a horizon. I loved it.

"There were just a few dead fish then," he adds.

Within a decade, the real-estate boom busted, most of the swank resorts closed their doors, and visitor numbers started to drop. In spite of its romantic new name, the Salton Sea remained an agricultural sump, and the nutrient load began to cause huge, foul-smelling algae blooms. The algae, the increasing salinity and the 90-degree-plus water temperatures combined to pull oxygen out of the water and kill fish by the truckload. Almost no one found the clear blue heaven they'd been promised.

A link in the chain

Except the birds. Birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, the well-traveled north-south route on the west coast of the Americas, soon discovered the huge new lake in the middle of the desert. By the 1930s, there were so many birds at the sea that area farmers were fighting to keep hungry geese and ducks away from their crops.

Since then, the flocks have only multiplied, says Dan Anderson, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of California at Davis. Wetland habitat in California has mostly disappeared, and the Salton Sea is now one of the main rest stops for waterfowl between the Central Valley and the Gulf of California. The abundant fish in the sea, Anderson says, give fish-eating birds like pelicans a chance to "fatten up" before continuing their migration. "It's become a link in the chain," he says, "a very, very important link."

Clark Bloom spent the last years of his career trying to keep that link intact. When Bloom took on the supervisor's post at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge in 1992, the refuge had just experienced the largest grebe die-off ever recorded in North America. The deaths are still unexplained, and the refuge staff thought it was a freak occurrence.

"We had a lesser die-off the following year, but it wasn't really significant," says Bloom. "Things weren't looking that bad; at least, we didn't think so."

After the rocky start, Bloom's job was fairly peaceful - until 1996. "To me, that year was kind of a paradox," he says. "It started out as a really good year for wildlife. We had brown pelicans nesting here on the refuge for the first time ever, and because they're an endangered species, we were pretty proud of ourselves.

"In August," he says, "we discovered we had a problem."

In four months, avian botulism killed more than 1,100 brown pelicans and 13,000 white pelicans, egrets, gulls and other birds at the sea. The disease spread like a grass fire, and the refuge staff struggled to get rid of the fuel, collecting and incinerating the dead birds that lined the shore and floated in the sea. Dozens of volunteers and staffers from state and federal agencies responded to the crisis, and for a few weeks during the summer there were 150 people working at the refuge. Even so, the crew worked seven days a week - often in temperatures well over 100 degrees - until the outbreak wound down at the end of October.

Avian diseases like botulism and cholera have been reported at the sea for decades, but 1996 was the beginning of a series of new, more deadly die-offs. The next year, in spite of reinforcement workers at the refuge, about 7,000 birds died of botulism, cholera and Newcastle's disease. In 1998, another 18,500 birds died at the sea; in 1999, the death toll was more than 3,000. Some biologists believe the diseases are linked to infected fish, and many theorize that the high density of birds at the sea speeds up the spread of the outbreaks. But no one fully understands the cycles, so the refuge staff concentrates on damage control, on trying to fend off "another 1996."

By now, the crises are almost routine. Though the boundaries of the 37,600-acre refuge include only the south end of the sea, refuge biologist Steve Johnson regularly patrols the entire sea, looking for the next outbreak. He expects botulism to appear in April, and he looks for the first cholera cases in December. "There's no time when it's completely disease-free," he says. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated for hepatitis A, and when an outbreak begins, they all pitch in. While biologists bring in the birds, office staffers help run the incinerator.

Clark Bloom retired in February, and his successor, Larry McGowan, recently arrived from a refuge in Oregon. "They told me when I came here that if I had a vacation planned between August and November, I could forget about it," McGowan says.

Bloom and other observers have one good thing to say about the die-offs: They can't be ignored. In 1996, the botulism outbreak was a national story, and people who had never even heard of the Salton Sea started to see pictures of dying pelicans in their morning newspapers. "The media really got on to it," says Bloom. "That was the one that woke up the world."

The attention was enough to resuscitate a long-dormant effort to restore the sea.

The Salton Sea Authority, founded in 1993 by local counties and irrigation districts, got enough federal and state funding to hire two staffers and open an office at the end of 1997.

In December of that year, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the sea and announced a joint study by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Salton Sea Authority.

The California chapter of the Audubon Society, concerned about the ongoing risk to bird populations, made the sea its top priority in Southern California.

"If you consider the size of the place, you realize it's too big to ignore," says chapter president Dan Taylor. "It's the biggest, most complex challenge we've ever faced, and it defies easy solutions. That's why environmental groups, including Audubon, sought to look the other way for a long time."

Then, in January 1998, Rep. Sonny Bono, a Republican from Palm Springs, Calif., died in a downhill skiing accident. The former singer had grown up water-skiing and fishing at the Salton Sea, and the sea was his pet cause during his years in Congress. House Republicans quickly passed a bill authorizing the appropriation of over $327 million to restore recreation and wildlife habitat at the sea. Although the Senate balked at the expensive tribute, it eventually supported the appropriation of $5 million to the Salton Sea Authority and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, setting a two-year deadline for the study. Congress also gave the wildlife refuge a tongue-twisting new name - the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

"The pelican die-offs and Sonny's death were both critical," says Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority. "This isn't a very populated area. It's a dusty part of southeastern California, and there's not a particularly large local constituency. (Those events) created a much larger - I'm not kidding myself, still small, but much larger - national and state constituency."

The Band-Aid solution?

Backed by new friends in Congress and the Department of the Interior, the restoration effort pushed forward. The results of the study were published in January, and the Salton Sea Authority is now holding public meetings on its proposed solutions for the sea.

Mary Belardo, the no-nonsense chairwoman of the Torres-Martinez Band of the Desert Cahuilla Tribe, has been watching the federal restoration effort as a nonvoting member of the Salton Sea Authority. The Torres-Martinez still own land underneath the sea, and the tribal EPA office is planning its own wetland restoration project on the sea's north end. Belardo has a quick assessment of the authority's proposals: "Well, they've come up with five alternatives that basically suck," she says. "They just don't make any sense."

At one of the meetings, several speakers echo Belardo. "The people of this desert don't like this plan," says local resident Dick Schall. "It's nothing but a Band-Aid solution!" The audience applauds loudly.

No one can agree on a solution for the Salton Sea. But that's not really a surprise. Not many people even agree on the problem, on what it means to save the sea. Even though the New River - often called the most polluted river in the U.S. - drains into the sea from northern Mexico, the most recent federal study found that the water has relatively low levels of toxins. Because the sea is a dead end, however, salinity continues to rise. The water is now saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and some predict that the sea will soon be so salty that even the introduced marine fish won't reproduce. Once the fish are gone, dozens of species of migratory birds will have nothing to eat.

Others say a more serious threat is the nutrient overload - the eutrophication - from agricultural and municipal runoff, which causes the oxygen-sucking algae blooms partly responsible for the huge fish kills.

Which is the more pressing problem? It depends on whom you ask.

"The salinity is as high as it's ever been, and I think we're just a few years away from those fish disappearing," due to high salt levels, says Stuart Hurlbert, a San Diego State University biologist who has studied the sea for nearly 20 years. Since the sea is nearly saturated with algae blooms, he says, "additional nutrients may not change things all that much."

"In my opinion, the systems of the Salton Sea are going to fail first because of its nutrient content," counters Park Superintendent Horvitz. "It's choking because of its nutrients. The salt has to be addressed, but people should understand that by just addressing the salt, we're still going to have a lake of dead fish."

The Salton Sea Authority has decided to tackle salt first. Most of its solutions involve a combination of two strategies: displacement dikes, which would concentrate the salts in one area of the sea, and an "enhanced evaporation system," which would spray water into artificial ponds to speed evaporation. Both are likely to get rid of some salt; both are expensive, stopgap solutions. One of the proposed evaporation systems, for instance, requires 2,400 acres of steel towers up to 130 feet high on the shores of the sea - a construction project that alone could cost more than $400 million.

Water nobody else wants

This approach doesn't please the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently condemned the draft plan as "inadequate."

"Our main concern is that it didn't address nutrients or water quality issues," says Laura Fujii of the EPA.

The proposal would increase fish harvesting, which will cut down on one source of nutrients. But to further reduce the nutrient load, the rivers that flow into the sea would have to be cleaned up, and pragmatists like Salton Sea Authority executive director Tom Kirk say that cleanup has a good chance of backfiring. Instead of cleaning water for the Salton Sea, he says, the project might end up cleaning water for Los Angeles or San Diego, since the cities might buy the good water before it reaches the sea.

"If we make that water any better, there's no way we can keep it," he says. "Having bad water is better for the Salton Sea than having no water at all."

Water supply is the third obstacle for the Salton Sea, and it makes dealing with salt and algae blooms look like warm-up exercises. Although the sea sometimes floods shoreline properties and the wildlife refuge, lack of water is the biggest long-term problem here, since the sea has no water rights of its own.

The Imperial Irrigation District, just south of the sea, has more water rights than the urban coast, and it has agreed to transfer 200,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego County. Much of this water would have eventually ended up in the Salton Sea.

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cooperating with the city of Mexicali to build a wastewater treatment plant. If the Mexican border city chooses to reuse the treated water instead of letting it flow north across the border in the New River, the sea could lose another 22,000 acre-feet each year.

These kinds of deals promise to take a big bite out of the 1.3 million acre-feet of runoff that sustains the sea. There is strong federal pressure on California to reduce its use of the Colorado River, so the Imperial Valley's irrigation runoff may become even more attractive to the California coast; more water transfers are already in the works. It's also unlikely that any new water from the Colorado will be heading toward the sea.

These are the Chinatown politics that Steve Horvitz encountered after his presentation to the regional water agencies, and it's one reason why people who live around the sea are so angry. Without a source of water, they say, all other solutions are just temporary fixes.

"There's no water at all, other than could-be water, for the sea," in the restoration plan, says local resident Norm Niver. "That's the disappointment. I say, "If you're not going to give us water, save your money. Please save your money." "

"Economics get lost in the debate," argues Kirk. "There are people who say, "Let's bring in fresh water from some source at any cost." Well, there are 14 million people in San Diego, L.A., and Orange County, and they can afford a little bit more than the pelicans can afford.

"This is a place that gets water nobody else wants," he says. "It's really a good indicator of the restoration challenges we are going to face in the future. In an ever-growing world of people, how do we best use the wastewater we have?"

Stuart Hurlbert is even more blunt. If the human population of Southern California continues its explosive growth, he says, the Salton Sea is going to be sacrificed. "It's just a common-sense thing," he says. "If you want to restore the sea, population is where you have to start."

Kissing it off

But population control in Southern California is a daunting place to start, and some scientists and even some environmentalists say it's better to cut their losses.

"It's not clear to me that the Salton Sea is essential," says Edward Glenn, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona who's spent more than 20 years studying the Colorado Delta. Many of the same birds visit the delta in Mexico, he says, which is only 60 miles away. "A eutrophic lake with diseased fish in it might not be a net benefit for the birds," he adds.

Drying up the sea completely could cause human health problems, since toxins buried in the lakebed could blow through the basin. But Glenn suggests that the authority should restore and create habitat for fish-eating birds in the rivers around the sea - and then consider allowing the Salton Sea to become as salty as Mono Lake or the Great Salt Lake. "Those ecosystems tend to be more stable," says Glenn. "That's the way nature wants it to be, anyway."

The Audubon Society is finding a few allies in the environmental community, but support for the artificially created, isolated lake has been hard to find. "It's a tough sell," says California chapter president Dan Taylor. Instead of joining Audubon's effort, a dozen national and regional environmental groups wrote a joint letter to the authority in mid-May, criticizing its proposals to divert some Colorado River floodwater to the sea. "Neither (the sea's) restoration nor its sustenance should come at the expense of ' the health of ecological resources in the lower Colorado River and its once-magnificent Delta," they wrote.

"It's not self-sustaining, and it was never meant to be," Mark Briggs of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Ariz., says of the sea. "It's just a big evaporative basin that everything drains into. We're putting a lot of money into restoring an evaporative basin. It just doesn't make sense."

But the Salton Sea stopped making sense back in 1905, when engineers sent the entire Colorado River flowing in the wrong direction, and the ironies haven't quit piling up. It doesn't make much sense that this evaporative basin is some of the best wildlife habitat left in the region, but some say it still needs to be protected, at least until other places are restored. They think the current restoration plan might be a good start.

"There are people who say, "Let's just kiss it off," says Anderson of the University of California at Davis. "But what will we substitute for it?" He supports the restoration and creation of wetland habitat near the sea, but says those efforts probably won't replace the huge fish feast that pelicans now enjoy in the main body of the sea.

In spite of the criticism leveled at their approach, the Salton Sea Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation aren't likely to rethink their proposed engineering solutions anytime soon. The restoration project's priorities, which include not only wildlife habitat but recreation and economic development, were set by a series of public meetings in Southern California and later reiterated in Congress' 1998 legislation memorializing Sonny Bono.

So while engineering won't turn the sea into a self-sustaining system, it could offer fast, measurable results for both wildlife and recreation - and results are what the agencies are looking for. Congress' two-year deadline expired in January. The agencies now hope to address the concerns of their many critics and turn their draft plan into a final plan by February 2001.

Then they'll face more obstacles: getting congressional approval and enough federal and state dollars to put the plan in place. "It's not an engineering challenge, it's a political and financial challenge," says Kirk. In the last three years, the authority's state and federal funding has increased from $200,000 to about $20 million, but even the cheapest proposed solution would require a congressional appropriation of more than $300 million

Though Mary Bono has continued to be an ally of the sea since her election to her late husband's seat in the House, not many representatives are eager to send more money to California, especially to a sea that's rumored to be a lost cause.

Imperial Irrigation District board vice president Andy Horne got an earful of this opposition during a lobbying visit to House Appropriations Subcommittee chair Ron Packard and his staff. "Their reaction was laughter," he told the audience at a recent public meeting. "They laughed in our faces when we requested an appropriation of $20 million, and that's nowhere near what will be necessary to deal with any of these problems. It's not just a matter of snapping our fingers and making this money appear."

The money might not appear unless public perception changes. Millions of birds will show up at the sea this summer, and hundreds of fishermen will catch thousands of fish, but the environmental tragedies here will always get the most press. "The highlighting of some of the problems we have has helped us, but that's also hurt," says Park Superintendent Horvitz. "So many people feel it's just a sewer. So many people think you put your hand in and your hand's not going to come back out. They think it's too far gone."

Though Horvitz is eloquent in defense of the sea, he can't quite bring himself to be optimistic. When asked if he sees any differences between this restoration attempt and the previous pushes to save the sea, he laughs quietly. "They're very similar," he says. "Very similar." Then he collects himself. "But it has never gone as far as it has gone now, and it may succeed," he says. "Personally, I think it's the last chance."

Back at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, brand-new manager Larry McGowan has a sunnier perspective on the sea than Horvitz, and he's enthusiastic about tackling its problems. In the refuge parking lot, a grandmotherly tourist leans out of her car window for directions. "Where are you from?" is her next question. When he tells her he's from Oregon and new at the refuge, she says, "You're gonna have a picnic, kid - this isn't anything like Oregon." He laughs and wishes her luck. "Good luck to you guys, too," she says cheerily, waving as she pulls away. "You're gonna need it."

Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Trickle of hope

- 'Something has got to give'

- 'It's no horror story to me'

- 'They wasted a lot of money'


  • Audubon Society, California chapter, 916/481-5332;
  • Salton Sea Authority, 760/564-4888;
  • Salton Sea State Recreation Area, 760/393-3059;
  • Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, 760/348-5278;
  • Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, 760/397-0300.

You can also find more information about the Salton Sea in Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, by William deBuys and Joan Myers, University of New Mexico Press, 1999, $35 hardcover, (800/249-7737), or by going to www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/SaltonSeaHomePage.html.