continued Death of the Salton Sea would destroy a major north-south migratory bird flyway and what was once among the most productive sport fisheries in California. It would also wreak havoc on the tourist industry and property values in the area. The lake already gives off the pungent stench of dinoflagellate algae that blooms uncontrollably due to phosphates and fertilizers entering the lake from surrounding farms. In recent years, algae have killed tons of tilapia, a fish that normally adapts to high salinity and temperatures. But the excess algae in the lake clings to the fish's gills, depriving them of oxygen. According to the September/October 2000 issue of the Endangered Species Bulletin, when brown pelicans ate the dead fish, hundreds of them died from type C botulism.
The major current problem for the Salton Sea is that it is losing more water through evaporation than it receives from incoming sources. Until now the Salton Sea Authority's proposed solution has been to build a dike across the middle of the lake. Then all inflows would be pumped to its northern half, and the southern half would eventually dry up. That would reduce the lake's surface area by 50 percent. A smaller lake would keep a better balance between evaporation and inflow, thereby maintaining high enough water levels.
But recent studies have shown that a 50-foot layer of mushy sediment lies at the Salton Sea's bottom. That makes construction of a dike on the lake impossible. Besides, says Newcomb, the Salton Sea is situated at the southernmost end of the San Andreas Fault. And the Sand Hill Fault and several other fault lines fan out from that point south.
In the event of a substantial earthquake in the area, the dike, says Doug Firestone, "would bend like a Hershey bar in the hot sun."
Newcomb claims that the Salton Sea Authority has "tentatively approved" his company's plan after rejecting a hundred others. But Dan Cain, a senior administrative analyst with the authority and the project manager assigned to the proposal, says he knows little about the plan because, so far, the company has yet to demonstrate that its technology will work. "If they demonstrate in San Diego that it works," he says, "or come down to the Salton Sea, set up, and show us that it works here, then we can look more seriously at it."
Aqua Genesis would like to test its plan in San Diego if the company can find a producer of waste heat, like a power plant. "That would be better than sending hot water into the ocean," says Newcomb. But if the company can't find anyone to work with in San Diego, they will do a test run at the Salton Sea, though they plan to save money by not digging yet for geothermal energy.
"Doug tested the system a year ago in Nevada," says Newcomb, "but tore it down without third-party verification. If we were further along at the time with our business plan, we would have had someone come in, verify the data, and 'kick the tires,' if you will. So now we have to redo that."
San Diego State University geology professor Eric Frost, who has worked at the Salton Sea and already uses it as "a teaching laboratory," is upbeat about the Aqua Genesis plan. "[Newcomb and Firestone] are doing out-of-the-box thinking," he says. "At the Salton Sea, I've seen people in the box who would rather argue forever about old solutions."
Frost goes on to say that if Aqua Genesis is successful, the implications for other water-starved regions in the Middle East, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere "would be extraordinary, and the Salton Sea people could end up becoming worldwide leaders."