April 2, 2002, NY Times Science Section
Farms and Growth Threaten a Sea and Its Creatures
By JIM ROBBINS
BOMBAY BEACH, Calif. In this harsh brown moonscape of a desert 80 miles
east of San Diego, the vast shimmering waters that stretch out at the base
of the Santa Rosa Mountains make the Salton Sea look like a mirage miles
of water too good to be true.
And in a way it is a mirage. The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, is
extremely salty, 25 percent saltier than the ocean and getting more so each
day. It often smells bad. Outbreaks of botulism and very low oxygen levels
have killed thousands of birds and fish.
The sea's increasing inhospitality, in fact, has turned Bombay Beach and
other small resort communities on its shore into near ghost towns. By 2030,
scientists say, the 360-square-mile sea America's second-largest saltwater
lake, a third the size of Rhode Island will probably be dead, no longer
able to support even the hardy species that inhabit it now.
Yet the sea, as strange as it is, plays a vital ecological role, and an
intense, complicated fight over its future is under way.
While few people come here anymore, the sea is an avian metropolis, with
some 400 species of birds. Among regions of the United States, its total
bird population is second only to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The Associated Press
As the Salton Sea's level drops, dead fish beach up on its margins, along
with debris like rusted mufflers.
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The reason for this abundance is agricultural runoff rich in nitrogen and
phosphorus that has turned the Salton Sea into a briny soup oozing with
algae and other life. As more than 90 percent of California's coastal
wetlands have disappeared beneath bulldozers and asphalt, migrating birds
have found the Salton Sea an alternative. The brown pelican and Yuma clapper
rail (both endangered) and large numbers of white pelicans, cormorants,
great blue herons, snowy egrets and other birds thrive on the fish here.
The paradox is not lost on Tom Kirk, director of the Salton Sea Authority in
La Quinta, Calif., a regional agency established to save the sea from
extinction. "This artificial place that relies on agricultural drain water,"
he said, "is the crown jewel of avian biodiversity."
But the Salton Sea is caught in the cross-fire of a water war.
The sea was originally created by accident, in 1905, when the Colorado River
burst through a levee and flowed into a vast depression then called the
Salton Sink. The river has long since been diverted, and now it provides
water to the sea only indirectly through irrigation runoff from the farms
of the huge Imperial Valley.
For many years, California has used far more water from the Colorado River
than its share under a compact with the other states along the river, and it
is under a federal mandate to reduce the amount it draws by the end of 2002
to 4.4 million acre-feet a year from 5.2 million acre-feet. San Diego will
have to find an alternative source for 200,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot,
enough water to cover an acre one foot deep, is about 326,000 gallons.) But
proposals to make up the deficit largely by conserving water and
transferring water rights from the Imperial Valley to San Diego would
sharply decrease runoff from the valley, virtually drying up the Salton
Sea's major source of water.
The sea would become "smaller, shallower and denser with salt very quickly,"
Mr. Kirk said. In as little as five years, he said, it could become too
salty to sustain life.
Mr. Kirk's agency has proposed that 50,000 acres of farmland about 10
percent of the total in the Imperial Valley be allowed to lie fallow. That
would make more water available to the sea and still provide San Diego with
the water it wants.
But fallow fields reduce jobs and income in the poverty-stricken valley.
Officials estimate that the measure would cost the region $171 million a
And that, says Mayor Larry Grogan of El Centro, would be a deal breaker.
"Everybody in the world wants to save the sea," he said. "But I don't think
it's possible. You're saving a dead-end system."
If no agreement on the Imperial Valley water is reached, California may be
forced to yield 700,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water by 2003. That
could sharply limit economic activity and curtail plans for development in
and around San Diego.
Alarmed by this prospect, some Republican lawmakers, state and federal, have
sought to change the Endangered Species Act so the threat to several species
that depend on the Salton Sea, including the brown pelican, would not
jeopardize a water-transfer plan.
"California is going to have to make some hard choices," said Larry Purcell,
a water resources manager for the San Diego County Water Authority. Even if
the Salton Sea loses irrigation runoff, he said, "There will always be areas
of the sea amenable to these species; it's not like it will be totally
In addition to destroying critical bird habitat, drying up most of the sea
would expose vast salt flats to wind erosion and would create a serious air
pollution problem, similar to one in the Owens Valley, where the need for
water for Los Angeles dried up Owens Lake in the early 20th century.
Officials say a significant water loss could also increase the levels of
selenium, a toxic metal.
No matter what happens, if the Salton Sea wants to keep attracting birds it
also needs to attract federal money. Because of evaporation the salt load in
the lake increases each year by more than four million tons the equivalent
of a mile-long freight train filled with salt.
Officials say that if no water is diverted from the Salton Sea, it can last
30 to 40 years before becoming too salty to support life. If water is
diverted, the process would take just five years. Various options to reduce
salinity, perhaps by pumping out water and allowing salt to settle out, are
estimated to cost $300 million, which officials hope the federal government
will provide. With the water diversion, the cost would rise to $1.4 billion.
While some lawmakers think the sea is the problem, Dr. Stuart Hurlbert, a
biology professor at San Diego State and director of the Center for Inland
Waters, a group of Salton Sea researchers, says the real problem is trying
to maintain San Diego's high growth rate.
"Ecologically, the best idea is to shut down the idea of transferring
water," he said. "As a San Diegan, the worst thing that could happen is to
have the water come here to add a million more people."
Andy Horne, an El Centro real estate agent and a board member of the
irrigation district that serves the Imperial Valley, says the matter is very
much unresolved, with the prospect that California's water supply will be
thrown into doubt.
"If you like train wrecks," he said, "stay tuned."