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June 21, 1999

New UC report suggests alternative actions for saving Salton Sea

By Kathryn Vincent
UC Riverside

The Salton Sea's declining water quality should be addressed creatively through agricultural/environmental partnerships rather than by large-scale, expensive engineering projects currently being considered by government agencies, says a report from two statewide University of California research units.

Further, the report urges binational resolution of the problems plaguing the sea because it is part of a regional ecosystem that transcends the U.S.-Mexican border and an important link on the Pacific Flyway, North America's West Coast route for migrating birds.

The Salton Sea, California's largest inland lake, covers part of southern Riverside County and northern Imperial County. It is primarily fed by saline agricultural drainage water. Because it has no outlet, the sea's elevation is variable and its salt content is increasing. It is an important wildlife habitat.

The UC report, "Alternative Futures for the Salton Sea," is cosponsored by the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) and the UC Water Resources Center. The binational committee of scientists who prepared the report conclude the habitat must be saved and that actions involving the lower Colorado River ecosystem must be coordinated with Mexico.

Some 380 species of birds are found in the Salton Sea region, including more than 75 that breed at the sea, many migrating species, and a few sensitive and endangered populations. Periodically, large numbers of both birds and the sea's fish die for reasons that are not fully understood. Thus, while the sea is a critical habitat for birds, it is sometimes hazardous to their health.

Alternative stopping places for feeding and nesting are not readily available, because California's once-abundant wetlands have largely disappeared in the last century, says Daniel Anderson, a wildlife ecologist at UC Davis and one of the report's authors.

The report takes issue with future scenarios that imagine a return to the sea's midcentury heyday as a popular destination for water sports and fishing. Some envision shoreline developments, condominiums and casinos. Realization of such dreams will require a costly engineering solution to control the sea's whimsical shoreline and the fast-rising salinity that will within a few years eliminate all fish from the lake, the report contends. Stabilizing salinity and elevation is a major focus of the Salton Sea Restoration Project, funded by HR 3267, the Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998. But lower salinity levels will not necessarily protect birds, the report concludes.

The prospect of economic returns from resort and recreational development has defined the structure of HR 3267, says UCR anthropologist JuanVicente Palerm, who directs UC MEXUS. The legislation gives priority to both economic development of the area and habitat quality, but its timeline demands a quick decision based on proven technology.

"The limitations of the legislation intended to save the sea may in fact keep us from finding the right answer to the wildlife question and may preclude the binational approach that is needed," Palerm said.

One long-term option to address both salinity and elevation issues is to build a pipeline that will exchange Salton Sea water for less salty ocean water. The report's authors are especially concerned about one frequently identified potential discharge site, the Colorado River's delta at the upper Gulf of California. The region is at the core of a biosphere reserve established as a United Nations-Mexico partnership in 1993 and the only habitat for a nearly extinct marine mammal, a small porpoise known as the vaquita, or little cow.

"Alternative Futures for the Salton Sea" resulted from a two-day meeting of U.S. and Mexican scientists convened by UC MEXUS and the Water Resources Center in October 1998.

The report's authors call for consideration of nontraditional--even experimental--approaches that eschew economic development in favor of habitat restoration and low impact recreational activities.

The shape and character of the sea may change if creative solutions are explored that make use of agricultural drainage waters in designed habitats before they reach the body of the sea, says John Letey, director of the Water Resources Center and Distinguished Professor of Soil Physics at UC Riverside.

"The integration of agricultural and environmental needs can advance our understanding of the ecological balances necessary to sustain human food production and wildlife habitats in the lower Colorado River region," Letey says.

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