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California and the West

House OKs $380-Million Bill to Clean Up Salton Sea

Environment: Action is taken in memory of the late Rep. Sonny Bono, who had championed such a project.


WASHINGTON — A $380-million bill to clean up California's Salton Sea passed the House on Wednesday in memory of the late Sonny Bono, who made its reclamation a priority of his congressional career before his death in January.

The measure passed 221-200, after a last-minute compromise assuaged some concerns of environmental advocates who had protested the bill.

Republicans trumpeted the bill as the first step toward saving a lost California resource--a man-made sea 30 miles south of Indio that was once a tony resort and is today a mysterious killing pond for fish and fowl.

"It's real simple," said Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) in one of her first floor speeches since she succeeded her husband. "You're either for the sea and the environment and you vote yes . . . or you're against the restoration of the sea and Sonny's dream."

The issue moves now to the Senate, where California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have introduced a similar measure.

It remains to be seen, however, whether a final bill will pass in the short weeks left before Congress recesses for the year, and, if so, whether President Clinton would sign it.

While agreeing that the Salton Sea is in dire need of rescue, the Clinton administration and several major environmental groups have vocally opposed the House plan to throw so much money at a problem that scientists are not sure can be solved.

In concept, the House bill should have been a slam dunk--a relative windfall of money offered by Republicans who have made cutting environmental spending a priority.

But opponents accused the GOP of using the Salton Sea issue to repair the party's anti-environment reputation with legislation that would have raided a trust fund reserved for acquiring parkland in order to save the sea.

The bill was amended to leave that trust fund intact, prompting some Democrats--especially among the California delegation--to drop their opposition to it.

Still, most House Democrats ended up voting against the bill, reflecting the administration's position. But compromises addressing the White House concerns may be worked out in the Senate version of the measure.

Among the 29 Democrats in California's House delegation, eight broke ranks to support the bill--Reps. George E. Brown Jr. (San Bernardino), Lois Capps (Santa Barbara), Gary A. Condit (Ceres), Vic Fazio (West Sacramento), Jane Harman (Torrance), Matthew G. Martinez (Monterey Park) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (Carson). Two other Democrats did not vote--Xavier Becerra and Lucille Roybal-Allard, both of Los Angeles.

All of the delegation's 23 Republicans backed the bill, with the exception of Rep. Tom Campbell of San Jose.

Researchers have yet to determine what is killing the sea's wildlife. Environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the National Audubon Society, favored further study and then funding a specific reclamation plan.

But backers of the bill, carried by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), were loath to wait, urging their colleagues to take advantage of the attention Bono's death brought to the sea and, in Bono's words, "just get it done."

"Let's be candid," one GOP aide confided. "Sonny Bono's passing brought a lot of attention to the Salton Sea. You have to take advantage of the momentum while you have the momentum. In two years, it might not be there."

The bill would authorize an 18-month study to determine how best to reclaim the sea, then $350 million in construction money for whatever project is deemed feasible. The additional $30 million would be used for cleanup of rivers that feed the sea and various environmental studies.

Republicans celebrated what they have come to call the "most important single environmental concern in Southern California today."

The sea once provided the backdrop to a bustling resort that attracted such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Marx Brothers. But it has deteriorated into a scientific mystery that some believe is unique to the globe.

Thousands of endangered pelicans and other birds that pass the sea along the Pacific Flyway were wiped out in 1996 after stopping during migration. The resort is a ghost town. And one of the world's most polluted rivers, the New River, empties into the sea from Mexicali across the Mexican border.

"We are beginning to make very real progress in an environmentally challenging effort to restore the single largest body of water in California," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who helped shepherd the bill to passage. "The eyes of Sonny Bono are surely smiling."

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