One of the attractions of the Sea is the abundance of life, manifested in the hundreds of species of birds that reside in, or visit, this important wetland habitat, and the fish that inhabit the waters. That is why some scientists have called the Salton Sea "California's crown jewel of avian biodiversity" and perhaps was the most productive fishery in the world.
This abundance of wildlife is particularly critical given the decline of wetlands. Over 90 percent of the wetlands of California have been lost. As California's wetlands decline, the importance of the Sea as a habitat for inland wetland species increases. The Sea's habitats support up to 40 percent of the entire US population of the threatened Yuma clapper rail, 80 to 90 percent of the American white pelican, and 90 percent of the eared grebe.
Besides the opportunity for bird watching and for fishing, the Salton Sea and its immediate vicinity offer recreational opportunities including boating, camping, off-roading, hiking, hunting, use of personal watercraft and photography. One of the attractions, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, has 1,400 campsites in five campgrounds, hundreds of picnic sites, trails, playgrounds, boat ramps and a visitors' center.
The Salton Sea, located in the southeastern corner of California, is actually a lake which occupies a desert basin known as the Salton Sink. This body of water covers a surface area of 376 square miles, making it larger than Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake. In fact, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. The Sea's current elevation is about 227 feet below mean sea level, its maximum depth reaches 51 feet and its total volume is about 7.5 million acre-feet. The Salton Sea has a unique make-up. By virtue of its location in the Colorado Desert ecosystem, an area with average annual precipitation of less than 3 inches per year, the Sea receives minimal inflow from rain.
As an agricultural drainage reservoir, the Salton Sea serves an important purpose for the productive agricultural valleys that adjoin it. As an agricultural sump, the Sea consists primarily of commercial agricultural drainage. In fact, 90 percent of the entire inflow to the Sea is agricultural runoff from the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys.
This inflow carries nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates, which support the rich and abundant life in the Sea. The inflow also carries an abundance of salt (and thus the Sea's name). Currently, the salinity level of the Salton Sea is 44 parts per thousand (ppt), compared to 280 ppt for Utah's Great Salt Lake, about 210 ppt for Israel's Dead Sea, 87 ppt for Mono Lake and 35 ppt for the Pacific Ocean.
The very things that make this lake so unique and such a rich source of abundant life are placing the Sea's existence at risk. The nutrients that provide such an abundant source of food for fish are at levels that alter the available oxygen in the water. Its salt content, which causes water vessels to be more buoyant, and thus the fastest lake in the nation to boat upon, will someday be so high as to compromise the reproductive ability of fish and, thus, their survival. Without fish, the hundreds of species of birds that rely on fish for food, and the economic status of the Sea as a productive fishery, would be threatened.
Its unique feature of being a shallow, closed basin renders it vulnerable to increases or reductions in inflows, which can dramatically change its elevation. During the 70s, heavier than usual precipitation combined with expansion of irrigation caused lake levels to rise, flooding tribal reservation and wildlife refuge land, seaside dwellings, and marinas and boat facilities. Sea levels have now stabilized with inflows equaling evaporation. The proposed transfer of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego as part of the reduction of California's Colorado River use, the possible reclamation of New River water by Mexico, and the increased evaporation from the Sea's restoration all threaten to reduce lake levels. The proposed transfer of the 300,000 acre feet alone, if inflows are not replaced, is estimated to drop lake levels by over 16 feet, exposing almost 70 square miles of sediments. The result could be potential air quality problems caused by blowing dust, seaside homes stranded far from the Sea, and greatly accelerated concentrations of salts and nutrients.
The Salton Sea Authority has recognized the Sea's challenges and has begun the restoration process, to not only sustain the Sea, but also revitalize it as an environmental and economic wellspring. The Salton Sea Authority, along with the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, has begun efforts to maintain the Sea as an agricultural drainage reservoir, restore the wildlife resources and habitats, stimulate recreational use, and provide an environment for economic development.