Op-Ed: A Proposal to Preserve and Enhance Habitat at the Salton Sea

Op-Ed: A Proposal to Preserve and Enhance Habitat at the Salton Sea

Published: October 2001

Authors: Pacific Institute

Pages: N/A



Recent discussions and legislative efforts at the state and federal level have again focused attention on the Salton Sea. These recent discussions, on the potential impacts on the Salton Sea of a proposed water transfer from Imperial Valley to the San Diego area, have highlighted the challenges faced by those working to address the current and future problems of the Sea, and the inadequacy of any temporary or piecemeal approach. Efforts to facilitate the proposed water effort are further hampered by indications that the federal/state Salton Sea restoration effort will be unlikely to achieve its own limited goals if the water transfer is implemented.

The current problems of the Salton Sea, manifested in frequent die-offs of fish and birds, arise from a complex set of human and natural factors. These include the high concentration of nutrients in agricultural run-off (creating an overly-productive system that can rob organisms of oxygen) and the combination of a hot arid climate, a below-sea level depression with no natural outlet save evaporation, and relatively salty Colorado River water that accumulates additional salts when used to leach fields. Fish and bird mortality at the Sea is more directly linked to nutrient inputs (exacerbated by the Sea’s high salinity); the inexorable rise in salinity is a future problem, one that will ultimately prove intolerable to fish in the Sea, and largely eliminating the Sea as a resource for fish-eating birds. A reduction in inflows to the Sea, due to the proposed water transfer and various other current and proposed actions, would accelerate the Sea’s transition to a water body unable to support fish.

In an effort to satisfy the dual objectives of addressing the ecological health of the Salton Sea and facilitating the proposed water transfer, the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security proposes a Salton Sea Habitat Enhancement Project. This project involves the construction of long dikes at the north and south ends of the Salton Sea, in conjunction with the development of constructed wetlands along the Alamo and New rivers and the implementation of management practices to reduce nutrient loads from agricultural, municipal, and industrial sources. The diked areas would capture inflows and maintain elevation near current levels, with excess waters flowing through pipes in the dikes to the main body of the Sea. These impounded north and south shore areas would transition to brackish, estuarine conditions, preserving and enhancing fisheries and assuring a food source for fish-eating birds such as brown and white pelicans and cormorants. The stability and lower salinity of the impounded areas would also promote increased recreation and economic development. This project builds upon the recommendation included in the Pacific Institute May 2000 comments on the Salton Sea Restoration Project draft EIS/EIR.

The proposed project offers the following benefits:

1. Compatible with water re-allocation efforts

2. Sustainable over the long term

3. Increases diversity of habitats at the Salton Sea

4. Preserves and enhances fisheries in impounded areas

5. Promotes increased recreational and economic development opportunities

6. Compatible with other off-site actions

The proposed action is not a simple fix, nor would it be inexpensive. Yet it is our belief that the  Salton Sea merits attention and intervention, and should not be simply ignored. It is also our  belief that state and federal authorities will not be interested in repeated, small-scale  interventions that do not address the root causes of the current problems afflicting the Sea, and  certainly will not be interested in projects that are incompatible with California’s stated objective  of reducing its dependence on the Colorado River.