What to do with Salton Sea now

Is it time to pull the plug?

Dead tilapia. “I eat tilapia from it every day. My cat Charles did too. And he lived to be 21!”
  • Dead tilapia. “I eat tilapia from it every day. My cat Charles did too. And he lived to be 21!”
  • Image by Joe Klein

Harriman is having a bad day. He’s in San Francisco, April 18, 1906. Earthquake day. He surveys his wrecked railway system through the smoke. “I have some disturbing news,” chief engineer Epes Randolph says to E.H. Harriman, the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. “Its the Imperial Valley. The Colorado River has exploded! The gap we cut to make an irrigation canal has become a 600-foot-wide crevasse; the whole river’s spewing through it! Sixty miles of your track will soon be under!”

Salton Sea egrets. "If ocean-salt levels can be maintained, it could survive as a saltwater fish habitat and a sanctuary for birds.”

Salton Sea egrets. "If ocean-salt levels can be maintained, it could survive as a saltwater fish habitat and a sanctuary for birds.”

The speech may be reconstructed, but the scene was real. What Randolph was talking about was the breech birth of the Salton Sea, one of the most spectacular man-provoked geological hurry-ups in history.

Ninety years later, the sea is in danger of drying up. Experts say a combination of San Diego’s water needs and more conservative irrigation by Imperial Valley farmers could reduce the sea to a saline lagoon with no inflow at all. The sea’s level would drop five to six feet a year just from evaporation — which means it could be gone in a decade.

From the start, the Salton Sea has been saved by an artificial life-support system. In a desert sink that has become a half-million-acre miracle garden, Imperial Valley farmers are so profligate with Colorado River water, their runoff alone pours 1.2 million acre-feet into the sea, almost exactly what it loses to evaporation. (One acre-foot is around 326,000 gallons, enough to support the water needs of two four-member families per year.) But those earth salts add to the increasingly briny mixture caused by the evaporation. In the 1920s this sea was still a freshwater body sustaining rainbow trout that tumbled into the sea from the Colorado River. Now it’s nearly a third saltier than the ocean and becoming too salty for the saltwater fish, like corvina and croaker, to reproduce.

Even worse for the sea, San Diego is getting thirsty again, and the farmers are finding ways of saving enough runoff to sell the city 200,000 acre-feet of it a year — that’s 650 billion gallons of water that the sea won’t get.

A walk along the Salton Sea’s southern shores, with its rotten-egg smell of algae, gives a whiff of the future. Plenty want to stop the rot — if not just for the sake of four million birds. In a California that has filled many of its marshlands for agriculture, the Salton Sea is a body of water migrating birds can count on as a place to rest. Unfortunately, as the sea’s gotten saltier, two of its man-introduced species are disappearing: the orange-mouth corvina and the gulf croaker. Only the tilapia, the fish these species used to prey on, is reproducing well.

Was it a coincidence this summer when 8000 tilapia-loving pelicans, including the endangered brown pelican, suddenly died on the beaches of the Salton Sea, the biggest pelican die-off in recorded U.S. history? And just four years after 150,000 eared grebes died off, 10 to 20,000 more in ’94? DDE, the half-decomposed elements of DDT (banned in 1972), is still found among drainwater contaminants. Remnants accumulate in the tissues of migratory birds, which peck at plants on Imperial Valley farms and along the Salton seashore. Eggshell thinning is affecting the fish eaters, from blue herons to egrets.

After decades of the sea being treated as a vast sump for city sewage and agricultural runoff, it’s payback time. The sea smells. The once hopeful Salton City, laid out and piped for water along the western shore, was a ghost town before it was built. Who can blame tourists for staying away? Since 1986 official warnings from the state’s department of health services have said adults should limit their consumption of Salton Sea croaker, orange-mouth corvina, sargo, and tilapia to “one four-ounce portion per two weeks, or one eight-ounce portion per month.” For women of childbearing age and children, “it should be avoided altogether.”

According to local state parks supervisor Steve Horvitz, the warning caused a drop-off of 110,000 visitors in the first year, although figures have climbed back since.

Salton City resident and the sea’s biggest champion, Norm Niver, calls this ridiculous. “There’s more selenium in a stalk of celery than in a 20-pound corvina,” he says. “That warning has the same value as the cancer warning on a can of diet soda.” He points out that the sea is still listed by the regional water board in a “recreational one” category, the safest water recreation area. “I eat tilapia from it every day,” he says. “My cat Charles did too. And he lived to be 21!”

Seventy-three-year-old Congressman George Brown (D-Riverside) remembers better times. “In the ’20s, the elite from L.A. and San Diego would be there,” he says. “They’d go speed-boating, hunting. It was the ‘in’ place. Even 15 years ago it was getting half a million visitor days per year, generating $50 million in revenue. People would be fishing, bird-hunting, swimming — in those days, you could swim in it.”

Brown loves this sea, which has been called “a mistake of man and perhaps of nature.” The man who’s leading fellow congressmen Duncan Hunter, Brian Bilbray, and other Southwestern representatives in a battle for the Salton Sea waxes nostalgic. Brown’s family has always farmed near it. Still do. In 1993 he was authorized to spend $10 million on research “to see what could be done.’’

Events involving San Diego, Brown believes, are bringing the sea to a critical phase in its 92-year history. “We have to face the fact," he says, “that changes are going to come. San Diego wants to buy a good part of what the water farmers are starting to conserve. The (Los Angeles Metropolitan Water Board] is looking at it as well. Mexico is starting to recycle its runoff from places like Mexicali by reclaiming the New River runoff. (The New River runs north through Mexico into the Salton Sea.] All this combined will reduce the amount of water feeding into the Salton Sea by a quarter to a third. Every acre-foot the sea loses means a fifth of an acre reduction in its surface area. If San Diego buys 200,000 acre-feet of that water, the sea will be reduced in area by 40,000 acres.”

Just this decrease, he says, will produce more concentrated salination and one mile of extra land between the present waters edge and the resulting shoreline. That will mean shoreline houses will soon have a mile of desert between them and the retreating sea.

“That is not a ‘maybe.’ That is going to happen,” Brown says. “What I’m afraid of is that nobody’s thought this through.”

Brown suggested to Pete Wilson that the governor initiate a program for the Salton Sea area to stimulate economic renewal and save the sea. “It will be a smaller lake, but if ocean-salt levels can be maintained, it could survive as a saltwater fish habitat and a sanctuary for birds.”

That would take money. Money to create a less saline lake and to pay for pumps to provide the sea with an artificial outlet up to the Gulf of California, a 227-foot rise. Funds would also help develop manmade wetlands, marshes that could break down chemicals from farmers’ runoff water entering the sea.

Brown says the prospect of lawsuits has encouraged the farmers to join the crusade to restore the Salton Sea. Those seashore residents, whose property values will drop once the receding waters leave them high and dry, will sue the Imperial Irrigation District — and the farmers who keep their water from running off into the sea. “That,” says Brown, “is a huge reason for them to take the initiative. To do something now.”

On the last Thursday in September, a decision was made by the Salton Sea Authority (formed in 1993 as a joint agency of the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, and Imperial and Riverside Counties) to take the first step toward reducing salt levels back to ocean levels. The Authority ordered research for diking off parts of the sea — perhaps the northern third — so that the water in the enclosed area evaporates, leaving the salt. As more water from the main body is let into the diked area, the surrounding sea, continually fed by fresh water, becomes less salty.

The dike idea was favored by the Ogden Group, an international environmental consulting firm, after some 55 suggestions were proposed, ranging from ship canals linking the sea to the Gulf of California to a 7000-foot desalination tower. It’s also an idea favored by the California Regional Water Board, for whom the Salton Sea is a major Southern California responsibility. “Desalination is the number one concern,” says the board’s Phil Gruenberg. “Right now the saline level is at 45 parts per thousand, compared with 35 parts in the ocean. The dike fit the Authority’s requirement of ‘established technology.’ And even that is likely to cost around $100 million. The question is how big a dike.”

The NIMBY—Not in My Back Yard—question how big and where promises to be tricky. Shore-dwelling residents would not be happy to live within the diked area, where the waters will gradually turn into a brine. On the other hand, Gruenberg says a smaller closed-off area, say 40 to 50 square miles, might take three decades to bring salt levels down. Closing off a third of the 35- by 15-mile sea could take care of both problems.

“The dike idea would give the sea ten years of life, that’s all,” says Imperial County Supervisor Wayne Van De Graaff. He believes that a two-way pump connection to open sea via pipeline is the only long-term solution—to pump oversalted water and pump seawater until salt levels equalize (as a bonus, Salton Sea water levels could be regulated this way too).

But Van De Graaff wants more. He’s already been talking with Mexican authorities about building a $1 billion ship canal and port, right on the U.S. border, using the Salton Sea’s alter ego, the Mexican Laguna Salada, as a partial access way. “If we had a seaport there,” he says, “we could have the saltwater coming in right to the American border. We’d only have to pump the water from the Salton Sea up to [the border].”

And the logic behind a Salton Seaport? A seaport on the east side of the coastal range mountains, Van De Graaff says, would be a great alternative route for Asian goods bound for Europe. Rather than transhipping at Long Beach, the Salton Seaport would circumvent the expensive mountain route. This would give Salton Seaport an advantage over Long Beach, L.A., and San Diego — and save the sea in the process.

“But that’s long-term. I’m the dreamer on the board,” Van De Graaff says. “The urgent thing now is the Salton Sea. I’ve heard some of the farmers say, ‘Well, [the Salton Sea is] Imperial County’s septic tank.’ And I don’t believe it. I believe with fishing and bird-watching eco-tourism, it will generate a lot more money.”

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