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Salton Sea Sticking Point in Water Deal

April 14, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALTON SEA STATE RECREATION AREA — Smelly and discolored, the Salton Sea has long been California's environmental invalid, cursed by rising salinity and an unstoppable flow of agricultural pesticides and Mexican sewage.

Still, this contradictory and improbable body of water that straddles Imperial and Riverside counties supports an enormous population of fish and millions of migratory birds.

For decades water planners have warned that the sea--which was created by accident nearly a hundred years ago--is dying and will someday be too salty for fish to survive. Those warnings have gone largely unheeded.

Now, unless a plan is devised in a few months to protect fish and birds in the sickly sea, a water transfer that is crucial to California's future supply may be in peril.

Nor is wildlife the only concern. Officials in downwind areas are concerned about the health hazards posed by the possibility of toxic dust storms like those that blow off Owens Lake if the Salton Sea is allowed to shrink and acres of salty, chemical-laced sea bottom become exposed to the desert winds.

The sea is suddenly center stage in California's water planning--and politicking--because of a proposed deal for water-rich farmers in the Imperial Valley to sell water to arid San Diego County. The San Diego-Imperial Valley deal would be the largest transfer of water from agricultural to urban users in the nation's history.

The sea is dependent on agricultural runoff for replenishment, and any reduction of water use by farmers could cause the sea to become smaller and saltier.

Federal and state endangered species laws require water agencies involved in selling and buying water to offset any negative impact caused by such sales. With people concerned about toxic dust storms, and invoking the federal Clean Air Act, the chances of litigation over the Salton Sea are considerable.

If the Imperial Valley-San Diego water deal falls apart for failure to find a solution for the Salton Sea, the effect could be felt throughout Southern California.

The water deal is key to an overall plan to reduce the state's reliance on the Colorado River. If other states dependent on the river are not convinced that California is serious about cutting back, they could demand that the federal government reduce California's take from the river.

"One piece falls and the whole thing fails," said Bob Campbell, a Salton Sea specialist with the San Diego County Water Authority. "That's the rock and the hard spot we're between."

The problem is that there is no consensus on how to fix the Salton Sea or how to pay for it. Worse yet, there are studies that predict that even a rescue plan costing hundreds of millions of dollars will only delay the sea's demise from extreme salinity.

Meanwhile, a Dec. 31 deadline for addressing the sea's environmental problems looms, and other Colorado River states are eagerly waiting to see if California can live up to its promise to reduce its draw from the Colorado--after years of taking more than its legal limit.

If the state cannot meet the December deadline, other Colorado River states could insist that the Department of the Interior prevent California from taking water that belongs to them.

Bennett Raley, assistant Interior secretary for water and science, warned in a recent speech that the federal government would have no choice but to order a mandatory cutback if California does not voluntarily reduce its dependence on the Colorado.

The other states have agreed to give California 15 more years of receiving "surplus" water but only if, among other things, the Dec. 31 deadline is met.

Raley said the overall California water plan is in danger of being "held hostage to the larger issues presented by the Salton Sea."

In an attempt to save the water transfer deal, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) introduced a bill that would have lifted the Dec. 31 deadline, provided $60 million for save-the-sea programs, and limited the ability of environmentalists to file lawsuits claiming the water transfer would harm the sea's wildlife.

The water agencies involved in the deal, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 16 million people in six counties, endorsed the Hunter bill.

But it was soon bottled up in committee, amid opposition from environmentalists, Democrats and Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), who represents the sea's northern edge.

"There are many people who believe it's not going to be feasible to save the sea," said MWD Chief Executive Ronald Gastelum. "But until a document [like a Bureau of Reclamation study] or a decision point forces people to come to terms with those realities, we're just going to swim in the same very salty water."

Said Joseph Sax, a former advisor to the Interior Department under President Clinton and a law professor at UC Berkeley: "The problem of the Salton Sea has turned out to be far greater than anybody thought."

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