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California and the West

Salton Sea Study Findings Are Encouraging

Environment: Pesticides are not detected, contrary to expectations. But many other problems remain.

May 23, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most other bodies of water, a report saying they are not polluted with pesticides would hardly be startling news.

But for the Salton Sea, the environmental invalid that straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, news that scientists can find no measurable amount of pesticides in its mushy bottom is the first hopeful sign in a long time, and a cause for celebration.

"Despite popular perception, the Salton Sea is not dead," said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, the agency created to save the sea from itself.

What has Kirk so buoyant is a preliminary report issued last week by an environmental consulting and engineering firm that contradicts the common wisdom that the sea is being poisoned by pesticide runoff from surrounding farmland.

"We had heard all the horror stories about the sea," said Richard Vogl, a hydrogeologist in the Irvine office of LFR. "We had expected to find elevated levels of pesticides, herbicides and metals, but we instead found almost no trace. This is good news."

The study by Vogl and his colleagues is one of several being done, with federal money, for the Salton Sea Authority as part of the most comprehensive investigation ever of the sea's ailing ecosystem.

The authority and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have a Jan. 1 deadline to tell Congress how sick the sea is and what can be done to save it from being strangled by salinity and other problems.

The role of pesticides in the sea's decline has long been debated. The sea, in effect, is a sump for the agricultural areas that surround it. But scientific evidence has been mixed and inconclusive.

In the 1980s, deformities in birds at Salton Sea were linked to pesticides, particularly DDT. But researchers were at a loss to explain why other calamities that could be expected from pesticide poisoning were not present.

If the Salton Sea is not a cesspool of pesticides, it could mean that cleaning up the sea, while still a difficult, dirty and expensive undertaking, may not be as daunting as once feared.

And on a political level, it could mean that sea lovers can avoid a clash with the powerful agribusiness lobby, which no doubt would oppose any effort to restrict the use of pesticides.

Along with the sediment study, a study of fish in the sea also found that, again contrary to popular notion, the sea's abundant fish are not sodden with pesticides.

"So far, to everybody's surprise, the Salton Sea is much cleaner than anybody expected," said Barry Costa-Pierce, a former professor at UC Irvine who is now director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant College.

The studies have caught even longtime Salton Sea watchers by surprise.

"I'm elated," said Milt Friend, named by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as the federal government's lead scientist on the Salton Sea evaluation. "The sea is much more vibrant and complex than people have thought."

Still, the sea has major problems: rising salinity, lack of drainage, fluctuating levels, deposits of selenium (although not as widespread as once thought), a weirdly toxic algae that has scientists stumped, and periodic outbreaks of avian disease that have killed 200,000 birds this decade.

Any price tag for fixing the sea with dikes, pumps and canals would run to hundreds of millions of dollars. And the sea has never had a broad-based constituency in either Sacramento or Washington.

In 1998, a $380-million cleanup bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) in honor of her late husband, Sonny, passed the House but was whittled to $5 million for research in the Senate.

The main environmental argument for restoring the Salton Sea is that it is a vital link in the Pacific Flyway for millions of migratory birds on the route between the Pacific Northwest and the Sea of Cortez. But even that sense of urgency is wearing thin among some lawmakers.

State Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), chairman of the Senate water committee, noted recently that birds were apparently able to complete their migratory trip before the Salton Sea was created and that he sees no reason why the birds cannot just find another stopping place if the sea ceases to exist.

The sea owes its existence to an engineering/irrigation blunder in 1905 that sent a torrent from the Colorado River rushing into a salt sink left by an ancient lake that had disappeared. The sea is warm and shallow, 35 miles long and 17 miles wide, twice as big as Lake Tahoe.

In warm weather, the sea smells like rotten eggs (blame the algae) and is the color of tea. Fish carcasses litter the shoreline--victimized by a lack of oxygen caused by a salinity level that is more than 30% higher than the ocean.

The New River and Alamo River both drain into the sea, bringing agricultural runoff. Vogl speculates that the shallowness of the sea and the turbulence kicked up by the desert wind serve to dilute the pesticides.

"At last, science is getting down to what the sea's real problems are and eliminating the myths," said Steve Horvitz, superintendent of the Salton Sea Recreation Area.

The fish study, however, did find something mysterious and environmentally alarming: stunted growth and odd behavior among the tilapia, the dominant fish in the Salton Sea.

Some of the tilapia are so sluggish that they have accumulated barnacles on their gill flaps, which shocked even Costa-Pierce, who has studied tilapia around the world.

"That's quite a kettle of fish out there," he said.

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