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Court case highlights questions about Salton Sea's future

Appellate judges will hear arguments over a 2003 deal allowing transfer of Colorado River water instead of replenishing the shrinking desert habitat for fish and birds.

November 19, 2011|By Louis Sahagun and Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Cormorants and other birds breed on Mullet Island in the Salton Sea.
Cormorants and other birds breed on Mullet Island in the Salton Sea. (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

Over the last five years, the Salton Sea's shoreline has been steadily receding into the desert, creating a "bathtub ring" of exposed lake bed around the 360-square-mile body of murky water that straddles Imperial and Riverside counties.

Once, it was one of the most productive fisheries and wildlife habitats in the state, but the shrinking Salton Sea has hit hard times.

Along with imperiling the fish that live in the hyper-saline water and the migratory birds that stop along their annual journey, the shrinkage exposes a pesticide-laden lake bed that could contribute to the dust storms that have given the region some of the dirtiest air in California.

PHOTOS: Salton Sea

On Monday, an appeals court will hear arguments over the legality of a 2003 water deal that environmentalists and some Imperial Valley officials say poses a serious threat to the sea's future if agricultural runoff to it is reduced. The 75-year pact allows the Imperial Irrigation District to transfer some of its massive share of the Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Opponents also argue that it was unconstitutional for the state Legislature, in finalizing the deal, to essentially offer a blank check to help fund restoration of the Salton Sea, which some estimate could cost billions of dollars. Because of budget constraints, the state has been unable to fulfill its promise.

A legislative hearing is scheduled Nov. 28 in the community of Mecca along the Salton Sea to discuss whether it can be saved or whether its demise is inevitable as water is sold to San Diego rather than being used to irrigate the Imperial Valley's half-million acres of farmland.

About 5,800 acres of farmland are being fallowed to save water to sell to San Diego. In coming years, fallowing is set to increase to nearly 30,000 acres.

"The clock is ticking [but] at the end of the day, the state is broke," said Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), who prefers a scaled-down, more affordable rescue plan for the Salton Sea.

Dusty flatlands up to two miles wide have already replaced parts of the Salton Sea where fishing enthusiasts once flocked to catch croaker, corvine and sargo.

Today, the only fish in the sea are inch-long desert pupfish and perch-like tilapia, a freshwater species that has somehow managed to adjust to salinity levels that should be lethal.

With evaporation outpacing incoming agricultural runoff, a thin sheet of water less than an inch deep and 100 yards wide on the east side of the sea's Mullet Island is all that protects tens of thousands of breeding and roosting cormorants, pelicans and herons from coyotes and raccoons.

In some places, the receding waterline has uncovered thermal fields with the consistency of peanut butter and studded with fumaroles, geysers and boiling mud pots spewing clouds of steam and sulfur dioxide gas that smells like rotten eggs.

In these burgeoning ecologies, tiny orange spiders crawl over warm mud oozing out of cone-shaped vents up to five feet high and tainted red and yellow by algae and bacteria.

Standing on a berm overlooking dozens of smelly caldrons, Tom Anderson, a biologist at the nearby Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, shook his head in astonishment and said, "Just a few years ago, these little volcanoes were bubbling under water. Fascinating, aren't they?"

"They're so new, most visitors aren't aware of their existence," he said.

Environmental conditions are expected to get much worse in a few years at the Salton Sea, a non-draining body of water with no ability to cleanse itself. The sea was created in 1905, when the Colorado River broke through a silt-laden canal and roared unimpeded for two years into the Salton Sink.

Irrigation runoff traditionally helped stabilize the salinity of the sea, and enabled fish to thrive and make the region a haven for tens of thousands of birds and migratory waterfowl, including endangered species such as peregrine falcons, bald eagles, Yuma clapper rails and pelicans.

As it stands, salinity levels at the Salton Sea are about 50,000 parts per million parts of water, authorities said. By comparison, the salinity level of the Pacific Ocean is about 35,000 ppm.

Long-predicted catastrophic changes may begin to unfold in 2017, after an abrupt decrease in the amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea.

Michael J. Cohen, co-author of a gloomy 2005 Pacific Institute report titled "The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project," predicted that "the sea will go off a cliff in 2017. The resulting crisis will be impossible to ignore, and carry huge costs in terms of human health, ecological health and agricultural production."

The surface will drop about 20 feet by 2030, Cohen said, shrinking the sea's volume by more than 60% and tripling its salinity. The effects will include the loss of fish and the tens of thousands of birds that eat them. The birds that remain will suffer from disease and reproductive deformities.

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