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Drop Bid to Revive the Dying Salton Sea

Exposed lake bed should be treated to guard human and animal life.

July 14, 2002|BRENT M. HADDAD and CHRISTOPHER J. BROWN | Brent M. Haddad is an associate professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. Christopher J. Brown is a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz.

The years are numbered for Southern California's great environmental accident of the last century--the Salton Sea. There is virtually nothing that can stop that, but plans must be made now to keep the lake bed that's left behind from becoming a bane to human health, migratory birds and the local economy.

Every few hundred years, the Salton Sea fills with flooding Colorado River water, only to dry up again as the river returns to its usual channel. Its accidental filling in 1905-07 has been maintained for nearly a century.

But the historical combination of farming practices, property rights and the water demands of California's cities and the Mexican border region is changing, which means that eventually evaporation will outstrip inflows and leave the sea dry.

At that point, three serious problems could arise: human health damage as the region's population breathes the salty, pesticide-laden dust and aerosols that are exposed on the seabed; the loss of a critical stopover for migratory birds; and the decline of the region's recreation/vacation industry.

Trapped in the sediments of the Salton Sea are arsenic, selenium, chromium, cadmium, zinc, lead and pesticides, including DDT. Asthma and cancer are potential consequences of breathing air laden with these particles.

Other examples of air quality impairment from drying inland water bodies include California's Owens Lake, which in recent years recorded the worst airborne particulate pollution in the United States, and the region surrounding Central Asia's Aral Sea, where one of the world's worst public health crises continues to unfold.

The city of Los Angeles is now taking action to stabilize air quality in the lower Owens Valley by returning some water to the lake bed, planting salt grass and spreading gravel on the surface. Meanwhile, the human health toll in the regions surrounding the much larger Aral Sea is staggering, with no solution in sight.

As for migratory birds, the Salton Sea is a critical stopover and feeding ground for millions of them.

Substantial portions of certain species (eared grebes, American white pelicans) use the sea each year. This resource will be lost to them as the water dries up. Already the virulent mix of salts and pesticides in the sea has caused rare diseases in some of the fish populations, with resulting die-offs among birds as they eat the diseased fish.

Meanwhile, recreational opportunities will disappear when the sea is gone. Today, policymakers and environmental and recreation advocates share a vision of restoring the Salton Sea, which would be to stabilize its elevation and reduce the salinity in some parts in order to support healthy fish and bird populations.

These plans would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which would be wasted because, without sufficient water flowing in, there will be nothing to restore.

The correct approach should be remediation: protecting human health, bird populations and the local economy as the Salton Sea inevitably dries up. This would shift the focus of policymakers from the sea itself to the exposed lake bed--something they can do something about.

We should undertake studies of how to immobilize the salts. With respect to birds, we must search for alternative wetlands both north and south of the U.S.-Mexican border, including restoring the now-dry Colorado River delta. We must also help recreation and vacation businesses plan for a future without the Salton Sea.

Attempting to restore the Salton Sea would mean spending too much money on a wish. Remediation of the damage caused by California's unique agricultural history also would be expensive, but it would be paid back in human lives and avian abundance.

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