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Agencies Drop Idea of Using Colorado River to Save Salton Sea

August 02, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Agencies studying how to save the Salton Sea said Tuesday that they are dropping a politically touchy proposal to use water from the Colorado River to cut the sea's high salt content.

Federal and local officials also announced a new round of studies to assess a method that would combine shallow ponds and the sun's power to take salt from the environmentally troubled lake.

"What we want to do is get salt out of the Salton Sea as inexpensively as possible," said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, which is made up of Imperial and Riverside counties and local water agencies. The authority is working with the federal Department of the Interior to craft a strategy for the Salton Sea.

The authority next will prepare a follow-up report to the sweeping restoration proposal that it unveiled in January, laying out a series of possible remedies to decades of pollution in the Salton Sea. The new report will recommend the best approach when it is sent to Congress by year's end. About $10 million is already being spent on test projects, wildlife studies and long-term planning.

The 35-mile-long sea is an important sanctuary for migratory fowl on the Pacific flyway. Long an agricultural sump, it has seen massive die-offs of birds and fish but remains a robust fishery.

The Salton Sea rescue could cost more than $1 billion. Among alternatives, the draft restoration plan mentioned bringing water from the Colorado River to reduce salinity of the sea, which is 25% saltier than ocean water. That idea was unpopular with neighboring Western states, which also draw water from the river and oppose using it to help the Salton Sea.

Kirk said the decision to drop the Colorado River from the Salton Sea restoration "is a response to political considerations." But he said that use of the Colorado to supplement flows into the Salton Sea was not a central part of the proposed cures and might easily be made up by other supplies.

The decision to study solar ponds came on the recommendation of an engineering consultant firm that examined alternatives proposed in the draft report.

The technology would remove salt by passing water through a succession of shallow ponds where water is heated by the sun's rays until it evaporates. Salt ends up in the final pond and then can be scooped and hauled away for disposal.

The draft plan suggested other methods, including an oversized evaporation pond and machines that hasten evaporation by spraying water in a fine mist.

The Salton Sea took its current form in 1905 when a canal carrying water from the Colorado River broke. The water flooded the low-lying desert between Riverside and Imperial counties. It is now refilled through runoff from farming and sewage and loses water only through evaporation.

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