THERMAL — A few careless words, the snap of a branch and a scene of bucolic splendor became utter chaos. Clouds of great blue herons exploded from trees and swaying cattails. Egrets erupted from watery redoubts. Ducks quacked furiously overhead.
Debi Livesay observed the frenzy from a windy bank.
"Wait a moment; they'll settle down," she said. "It's hard to sneak up on them."
Finally, the birds swung around in a tight circle and made splash landings in this patchwork of wetlands stretching out to the Salton Sea.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Salton Sea: An article in the Feb. 24 California section about efforts to restore parts of the Salton Sea omitted the reporter's name. David Kelly was the author.
Livesay, 59, seemed pleased by the performance, as if she'd choreographed the whole thing.
And in a way she had -- or at least helped set the stage. For decades this 85-acre stretch of the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation lay beneath the Salton Sea. As the lake receded, it left behind a salt-encrusted wasteland worthy of Death Valley. Dead trees jutted like bleached skeletons from petrified mud. Even hardy creosote struggled to survive.
Now, thanks to Livesay's seven-year effort to bring back water, it's a lush Eden of wetlands, plants, fish and more than 135 species of birds.
And state officials -- who have their own $8.9-billion, 75-year plan to rescue the dying sea and restore bird habitats -- are eagerly watching what happens.
The Salton Sea, California's biggest lake, is saltier than the ocean and getting saltier all the time. Water agreements reached in 2003 mean Imperial Valley farmers will stop sending their runoff into the sea, causing it to shrink further and grow ever more saline. Scientists predict that, without drastic action, by 2015 the last of the sport fish will have died off. The 400 species of birds that nest there, including endangered species such as the Reservation California least tern and Yuma clapper rail, will leave soon after.
But while the state's plan is still on the drawing board, Livesay's is up and running.
"This is the first microcosm of what all of the rest of the plans call for around the sea," said Dan Parks, coordinator for the Salton Sea Authority. "Scientists have an idea of what they need, but there is a lot of stuff they can't get out of a textbook so you need to get in there and experiment."
Livesay is no scientist. She's a former journalist with a gift for big ideas, a talent for securing grants and total self confidence.
As the Salton Sea dwindles, pesticide-laced sediments have blown over the reservation, exposing thousands of tribal members and other nearby residents to toxic chemicals. In 2001, Livesay, the tribe's head of water resources, was charged with finding a solution.
"We can't afford to have the Salton Sea dry out or people couldn't live here anymore," she said. "It would be 200 times bigger than Owens Lake. All you need is an inch of water to keep the dust settled. So I said, 'Let's make a wetland.' "
Working mostly on her own out of a converted trailer, Livesay won $2.3 million from state and federal agencies and began excavating seven ponds ranging from a few inches to 6 feet deep, and up to 20 acres wide.
Contractors built artificial islands and barriers between pools. Using a complex system of pipes and valves, they diverted water from the Whitewater River, filling and emptying the ponds each day for two years to leach out salt.
Then, in 2005, the valves opened wide and water gushed into the ponds for good. Livesay released young tilapia, mosquito fish and mollies to control insects. She planted native palms.
Nature did the rest.
Willows and cottonwoods began to spring up. Herons nested on the islands. A bald eagle took up residence alongside numerous ospreys. Biologists say they wouldn't be surprised to find a California condor soon. They spotted one in nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park last year.
Livesay expects to open her creation to the public in November under the name "California's Everglades." And she hopes to create 10,000 more acres of wetlands across vast swaths of desiccated lake bed.
Tribal Chairman Ray Torres recently described the restored wetlands as a "magnificent sight." The tribe is building a cultural center and an amphitheater near the project's entrance on South Lincoln Avenue.
"The state's Salton Sea restoration plan is very ambitious, but there is degradation going on right now," said Monica Swartz, a biologist with the Coachella Valley Water District who advises Livesay. "The Torres Martinez are the only group taking responsibility for it. Everyone else is talking about it, but they are the only ones doing anything about it."
She called Livesay a "force of nature," adding, "Debi is a remarkable person who doesn't understand what impossible is. She saw what the tribe needed and she made it happen."
Livesay, who is not Native American, worked at the Whittier Daily News and the North County Times before quitting journalism because she said it was too difficult to be married, be a reporter and raise four children at the same time.
She picked up part-time jobs, working as a bartender, running construction crews and building houses.