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Salton Sea Plan Proposed

Backers say a smaller lake would help wildlife while making water available for farmers.

May 12, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Cut California's largest lake in half. Capture and treat farm runoff that flows into it. Then send the treated water back to Imperial Valley for reuse, allowing farmers from the region to ship some of their Colorado River water to taps along the heavily urbanized coast.

That is the latest scheme for saving the Salton Sea. It is quickly catching the attention of politicians and environmentalists, who say the plan may just satisfy enough competing interests to end decades of stalemate over the future of the imperiled inland sea, an enormous, biologically rich sink vital to birds that migrate along the West Coast.

Solutions to the sea's problems have come and gone over the decades. It remains to be seen whether the most recent one will remain afloat -- thereby providing a piece in the complex puzzle designed to reduce California's overuse of the Colorado River.

Under the plan, the 35-mile-long lake straddling Riverside and Imperial counties would shrink substantially. But its water quality would improve -- at least in theory -- providing a better home for the lake's bountiful fish and bird populations. Perhaps more crucial to the idea's emerging popularity is the fact that it would create a new source for human water use and reduce California's reliance on the Colorado.

"This is all about compromise," said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, which came up with the plan. "We're saying, 'All right you guys, you've wanted this water for a long time. We'll help you get it if you help improve the sea.' "

The concept, or elements of it, are being eyed as an alternative to a major water deal involving the transfer of Imperial Valley farm water to San Diego.

That deal, put forth by Gov. Gray Davis' administration in March after an earlier version collapsed late last year, is designed to maintain California's access to surplus Colorado River flows while the state weans itself from the extra supplies, which other Western states are now demanding for their growing populations.

Heavily promoted by the Davis administration and the San Diego County Water Authority, the prospective deal is encountering resistance from some key players, most notably the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of four water agencies that must sign off on the agreement.

It is into this pool of politics and policy that the fate of the Salton Sea Authority proposal has slipped.

A Deal for Everyone

By tying together environmental and water supply concerns, not to mention the potential involvement of private industry, the deal appears to offer something for everybody.

Metropolitan's board is expected to discuss the concept this week. And the chairman of the state Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, Democrat Michael Machado of Linden, recently introduced a $5-billion state water bond proposal that earmarks $1 billion for Salton Sea restoration work.

The general idea, Machado said, is appealing in several respects: It would improve the increasingly salty sea's health, help California live within its basic allotment of Colorado River water and free up agriculture water for urban use without taking farm land out of production -- as would the Imperial-San Diego deal.

Discussions have begun to determine whether the old deal -- transferring farm water to cities -- might somehow be combined with the new plan for shrinking the sea.

The color of beef broth, often smelly and periodically subject to huge die-offs of corvina and other fish, the Salton Sea has dried up and been reborn many times over the years. Most recently, in 1905, early water entrepreneurs in the Imperial Valley created the sea by mistake when they diverted the Colorado. The river jumped its banks and filled part of an ancient lake bed. Ever since, the sea has been a stepchild of California water policy. Lots of people want to save it, but nobody wants to pay for its salvation. Sustained by farm runoff from the New and Alamo rivers, the lake has no outlet and gets saltier with the passing years. If something is not done, it will likely become too salty to support the fish that attract hundreds of bird species. That would be the end of a valuable stopover on the Pacific Flyway -- the migratory path for many birds between South and Central America and the U.S. and Canada.

The looming transfer of Imperial Valley water -- which would reduce farm runoff to the lake -- has heightened concerns.

"I think a lot of people are seeing this as a door open for a brief period of time," said Karen Douglas of the Planning and Conservation League, which is involved with a coalition of environmental, sportsmen's and tribal groups working on Salton Sea issues. "If we don't find a restoration plan at the sea with these components that work, our chances of getting a restoration plan are fairly slim."

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