Rising salinity of water at the Salton Sea presents the single largest resource management challenge to the fish and waterfowl livign at the Sea. It has been referred to as the Salton Sea’s “time bomb.” Salinity levels must be stabilized to preserve the life in the Sea and to buy time to address the Sea’s other challenges.
The vast majority of water entering the Sea originates from the Colorado River and is salty when it arrives. Current water flows from this source deliver to the Sea the equivalent of a trainload of salt every day. Because the Sea has no outlet, the water evaporates, leaving the salt behind to accumulate. If nothing is done, the salty water will kill the fish and, with them, the birds that depend on the fish for food. To maintain the Sea at current levels of salinity, several million tons of salt must be removed annually.
A long term salt removal strategy is required. In the interim, the Salton Sea Authority is working with other concerned agencies to develop wetlands and habitat near the primary tributary rivers. The relatively fresh inflows of water from agricultural drains can support healthy habitat on the edges of the Sea while the saltier water of the Sea ebbs and flows with transfers and drought.
The use of the Sea contributes to its eutrophic condition, full of nutrients. The nutrients are what support the rich and abundant life in the Sea. They flow in with the water that comes from urban and agricultural runoff. The nutrients do not create a known health risk.
Once in the Sea, some nutrients are continuously recycled, used by living creatures and then returned to the Sea when they die. Some nutrients precipitate out. But as with salts, evaporating water in a closed basin concentrates the nutrients which are left behind.
Myths & Realities
Restoration of the Salton Sea is a unique opportunity to improve the environment and enjoy economic benefits of a major national resource. The Salton Sea Authority stands committed to maintaining the values of the Sea as a critical link along the Pacific Flyway, stimulating recreational use and providing an environment for economic development.
As work on the goal of restoration of the Sea begins, a great effort is needed to help dispel numerous myths about the Sea that have spread throughout the country. These myths have made it more difficult to define the Sea’s problems, to explore and understand the Sea’s possibilities, and to take the steps necessary to travel from understanding the problems to creating the possibilities.
Myth No. 1
“Given its manmade origin, the Sea should simply dry up and revert to its dusty and dry natural beginnings. Dust to dust.”
The Salton Sea is NOT a man-made body of water. This myth begins with the factual history of the Sea. Indeed, massive flooding in 1905 caused the Colorado River to break through an irrigation canal head works and flow freely into the Salton Basin for a year and a half. By the time the breach was closed, the present-day Salton Sea was created.
Myth No. 1, however, suggests that a static, dry, “natural” state exists in the basin. It does not. In tracing the Sea’s origins, it is found that Indians made use of a massive Sea’s bounty during the 1500s, leaving behind artifacts that recorded their practices. From 1824 to 1904, the Colorado River flows flooded the Salton Basin no fewer than eight times. Each time and countless times before, the Colorado River has meandered west and filled the Basin with fresh water.
As to its present state, drainage from 500,000 acres of farms in the neighboring Imperial and Coachella valleys now sustains the Sea. The Sea is a designated federal repository of agricultural runoff, and agriculture is a billion dollar mainstay of the Valleys’ economies. Agricultural use will continue into the future, thus ensuring the Sea’s existence.
Myth No. 2
“The Salton Sea is a marginal ecological resource.”
The Sea is one of the most important wetlands along the Pacific Flyway, and is increasingly so as over 90% of the inland wetlands that provided habitat value to the birds along the Pacific Flyway in California have disappeared.
Several million birds migrate and inhabit the area every year. The Sea provides a wintering habitat to over 450,000 ducks and up to 30,000 snow and Ross geese. In fact, over 400 species of birds have been spotted at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, more than any other place in the U.S., other than the Gulf Coast of Texas. Endangered species also make the Sea their home, including the brown pelican and the Yuma clapper rail.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was prepared to de-list the brown pelican until 1400 died at the Salton Sea in 1996, decimating approximately 1/3 of the worldwide population. This and other bird die-offs is a significant issue, but must be put in perspective with the safe, healthy refuge the Sea provides to millions of birds every year.
Myth No. 3
“The Salton Sea is a marginal economic resource.”
Before 1985, the Sea’s State Park had more visitor days per year than did Yosemite National Park, and press reports from the 1960s highlight the popularity of the Sea as a recreational destination.
A 1985 California Department of Fish and Game study found that the Sea was more productive (fish caught per angler hour) than any California marine fishery and equal to the most productive freshwater fisheries. In 1989, the Department found the annual direct impact of the fishery to the local economy to be 50 to 65 million dollars. A study now underway indicates that the fishery may be the most productive in the world.
The Sea and the agriculture industry provide mutual economic benefit. The Sea itself could not exist without its primary water source-inflow from irrigation runoff, and the agriculture industry relies on the Sea for a repository of this runoff. Today, the annual agricultural economy of Riverside and Imperial counties combined is $1.5 billion.
Business and academic interests have suggested that a restored Sea could drive the regional economy for years to come.
Myth No. 4
“Mexicali Pollution is causing all of the problems at Salton Sea.”
While much publicized, water carried by the New River from Mexico does not appear to be a major contributor to the Sea’s problems. In fact, only about 12% of the Sea’s inflow originates in Mexico.
By the time water containing human and industrial wastes crosses the border and traverses the 60 miles to its delta at the Sea, the New River’s water quality is equivalent to that of the nearby Alamo River. Waste from Mexico undergoes natural treatment in the River and is diluted by agricultural drain water from the Imperial Valley. Additionally, a wastewater treatment plant is being constructed in Mexicali to improve water quality in the New River.
Myth No. 5
“The Sea is a toxic dump created by agricultural pesticides.”
The State Water Resources Control Board tests the Sea twice a year and has not found pesticides at a significant level in the Sea. Pesticide levels are periodically found to be high at some drains, but the Sea’s sheer volume and most pesticides’ ability to biodegrade seem to limit their impact.
This was further validated with two independent studies conducted by the Salton Sea Science Subcommittee. This research indicated there were no pesticides in the sediment and water of the Salton Sea. A third study found extremely low levels of contaminants in the Sea’s barnacles, a finding which surprised the researchers, because the levels were much lower than found in the waters of San Diego.
Selenium is a concern. Selenium is a naturally occurring element in Colorado River water, the source of the vast majority of the Sea’s water. Selenium is found at elevated levels in the inflows to the Sea and in the sediments of the deepest parts of the Sea. Yet in water taken from the Sea itself, selenium was found at about 1 microgram per liter. For comparison, the federal standard is 5 micrograms per liter, and, at Kesterson in Central California, the level was about 80 micrograms per liter. Still, the state issued an advisory in 1986 advising against the excessive consumption of fish from the Salton Sea. Scientists are currently studying whether selenium is bioaccumulating in the food chain.
Myth No. 6
“Then, what are the Sea’s actual problems?”
One is its immensity and another is its complexity; it is California’s largest inland body of water and supports an ecosystem of introduced and endemic biota. Another problem is its location. Far from urban centers and the usually vigilant eye of environmental interests, the Sea has been largely ignored. With the recent bird die-offs, the environmental community is waking to the Sea’s problems and possibilities (the Audubon Society has made the Sea a number one priority).
There is much more to learn about the Sea. What is evident are bird disease outbreaks, fluctuating surface levels, and nutrient-rich water. One other major factor has and continues to contribute to the Sea’s downward spiral of ecological and economic health: salinity. The Sea’s salinity has increased steadily over the years. Now at 44 parts per thousand, or at a content level 25% greater than the ocean, the hypersaline environment is jeopardizing the survival of fish and will ultimately jeopardize the survival of much of the Sea’s biological bounty.
The time for action is now, when there is still time to develop short term and, ultimately, long term solutions for restoring the Sea. Myths must be dispelled, myths and misperceptions that have contributed to public confusion for so many years.
The Sea’s immensity, complexity, and remoteness may, in the past, have combined to create the Sea’s greatest threat: uncertainty leading to unease, leading to inaction.
However, the knowledge gained from the extensive research on the real problems, coupled with political will to take responsible action, will go far in debunking the myths and making the restoration of the Sea a reality.