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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / Robert A. Jones

Dying by the Sea

September 04, 1996|Robert A. Jones

SALTON SEA — Out back of the ranger headquarters, they're burning dead birds again. This time it's brown pelicans, an endangered species. The incinerator guy shoves in a load of pelican bodies and waits while the fire turns them to ashes. Then he shoves in another load. Dust to dust.

Day and night, the burning goes on. In fact, the little oven can't keep pace with the piles of dead pelicans. Thus far, the rangers have deposited the corpses of 785 brown pelicans, 2,864 white pelicans, and 1,579 various and sundry others collected from around the sea. And more arrive each day, their numbers unabated.

It's high summer here and the Salton Sea is killing things, as usual. Also, as usual, no one seems to know why. That's not to fault the rangers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the scientists who are trying to unravel the latest carnage. The fact is the Salton Sea now presents natural science with conditions so deadly to wildlife and so unusual that they are rarely found in other locations.

Take the present slaughter, for example. It began in mid-August when Clark Bloom, the manager of the refuge here, heard that a few dead pelicans had washed up on the beaches. He checked and found more than a few. Some sample bodies were sent to a laboratory for autopsy and soon the answer came back: The birds had died of Type C botulism.

But the answer raised a bigger mystery. Type C botulism is produced when certain bacteria grow in rotting flesh. Problem is, pelicans don't eat rotting flesh. They catch and eat live fish. Just to be certain, scientists caught some live fish and sent them for autopsy. No botulism.

The same thing happened in 1992 when 150,000 grebes died at the sea and no one could figure out why. In dying, some of the grebes became so disoriented that they stood still on beaches while gulls tore into their flesh and began eating them alive. Three years later, biologists concluded that the grebes had been poisoned by huge blooms of toxic algae that came swelling out of the sea's depths, fed by nutrients from agricultural drains.

"These dieoffs are so painful for us because we can't do anything about it when we don't know the cause," says Bloom. "All we can do is keep picking up the dead birds."

Not to mention the dead fish. Actually, fish kills are so common at the sea that no one tries to pick them up anymore. Dead fish now ring one part or another of the shoreline most of the time, their numbers reaching the tens of thousands.

So strange and awful are these stories of the dead and dying at the Salton Sea that the Smithsonian magazine recently described it as the mer noire. In fact, the noire part of the sea has been present from its birth. Created in 1905 when a monstrous agricultural accident diverted the flow of the Colorado River into the Salton sink, the sea originally was a fresh body of water that sustained a healthy population of trout.

But it was doomed from the instant of its birth. The sea had no outlet and slowly grew salty as the desert sun evaporated the freshwater. Soon farmers from the Coachella and Imperial valleys were directing their salty runoff into the sea along with pesticides and selenium. They are doing so to this day.

At the south end, one of the most polluted rivers on Earth adds its brew to the mix. The New River, coming from Mexicali, dumps raw sewage and industrial wastes and sometimes entrails from slaughterhouses directly into the waters. Not a pretty sight. The New River actually foams from its detergent load, and the foam has infected people who touched it.

So the garbage goes in and never comes out. Personally, says Bloom, he would never eat a fish that came from the sea. "I don't think it's best because of, you know, the problems."

It would be easy enough to declare the sea a lost cause and let it go down. In recent years, in fact, scientists have played a game of predicting when the remaining fish will no longer be capable of reproducing in the sea's brine. At the present rate of salt increase-- roughly 800 parts per million per year--that point could be reached within 10 years, and the sea effectively would go dead.

But we will pay a great price for allowing that doomsday scenario to take place. The reason is the birds. The sea sits directly in the path of the great Pacific flyway, the migration route for millions of ducks, geese, pelicans and other species. This year, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about half a million of these birds will use the sea as a stopover point, eating and resting before taking up their journey once again.

If the sea goes dead, it will have no food to offer the birds and they will be forced elsewhere. But what elsewhere? A hundred years ago the birds would have had many choices. Today, they do not.

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