California, awash in red ink, may axe a Council that has never met in its 16-month existence. Called the Salton Sea Restoration Council, it was to jump start restoration efforts at California’s largest lake and one of the world’s most storied bodies of water.
Following events at the Salton Sea is a little like reading an overblown paperback novel where the writer should have shown restraint and ended the story after the first chapter. The lake itself, literally burst on the scene in 1905 when the Colorado River slammed through under-constructed irrigation canals and changed course. With nowhere else to go, water poured into the Salton Basin for nearly 18 months. The river was finally stopped, after five tries and untold losses, in 1907. By then, the lake was about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide, covering over 400 square miles.
The colossal accident set in motion a completely new set of events. Located in one of the lowest spots on earth, the area had been the site of historic flooding and seasonal marshes. By 1906 observers were already reporting large concentrations of waterfowl, pelicans, and other birds in the area. Originally filled with fresh water, the Sea soon became a fishing Mecca and celebrities began frequenting what was called the inland Riviera.
With no new source of water, the lake should have evaporated away in 20 or 30 years, but in the 1920s President Coolidge designated it as an agricultural sump. Run-off and drainage from the Imperial and Coachella valleys, rich in the fertilizers, created a vibrant ecosystem at the Sea. Along with fish and other water wildlife, more than 400 species of birds – the second highest bird count in the country – have been spotted. Today millions of birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway.
Barely 50 feet at its deepest point, the same amount of water enters the lake as exits through evaporation. Annually, four million tons of dissolved salt, and tens of thousands of tons of fertilizers flow in but don’t leave. Salinity at the Sea is now 25 percent saltier than the ocean.
By the 1980’s grave problems had surfaced. The fishery declined, periodic algal blooms occurred, and dramatic die-offs of fish and birds began. In the 1990’s high concentrations of selenium were found in the eggs of egrets and night heron and a paper detailed defects in fish embryos.
In 1993, California set up the Salton Sea Authority to work on maintaining beneficial uses of the lake. The Authority, which later actively opposed formation of the endangered Restoration Council, collected suggestions for remediation and formed action plans. In 1997-98, Congress established a Salton Sea Task Force and passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act, requiring the Interior Department to report on the sea and propose a plan by January 1, 2000. Then, on August 4, 1999, an estimated 7.6 million fish died in one day, the largest die-off ever in the sea and hundreds of thousands of birds have died since.
While the Salton Sea has substituted for historic wetlands in the area, it is now a death sentence for some of its in habitants. Previous efforts to address the problems have faltered—usually due to lack of both money and public demand.
The Sea is now a ticking time bomb as large volumes of agricultural water that originally drained in the lake are planned to be diverted to support urban areas. Legal agreements about who will get water kick in by 2017. With less and less water, and without extreme intervention – the sea will likely keep evaporating and go dead. Meanwhile, a potential hero of the story, the Restoration Council, is in peril.
Death of the sea will not be romantic, in addition to loss of wildlife habitat and the local agricultural economy, the evaporating lakebed will generate dust filled with pollutants. This will add to statistics showing 20.2% of the region’s children are diagnosed with asthma, compared with the 13.7%.national average. Imperial County, the location of the lake, consistently has the highest asthma hospitalization rate of all California counties.
The Salton Sea Authority has commitment but say funds and a scientific basis for solutions are lacking. Critics, looking at rows of reports and millions of dollars spent on studies, call for action. Still experts say no, numerous in-depth and extensive studies are needed to understand the complex issues affecting the Sea. Previous studies have been sporadic, narrow in scope, and not connected to a plan of action.
Meanwhile, most of the people working on the issue just hope complete ecological and economic disaster can somehow be averted. The last chapter in this story hasn’t been written. Let’s hope for a happy ending