SALTON SEA, Calif. (AP) The Salton Sea is an incongruous sight: a huge body of salt water in the middle of the desert.
And with good reason. Mother Nature never meant it to be.
California’s largest lake was created in 1905 when floodwaters from the Colorado River burst past a series of dams and settled in the Salton Sink, a naturally salty stretch of dusty land more than 228 ft. below sea level. Ever since, the lake that is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean has been a Southern California oasis supporting a complex ecosystem.
Its future, however, is in doubt. The sea is shrinking and, with plans to divert more of the water that feeds it, could lose 60 percent of its volume in the next 20 years, devastating the fish population and the 400 species of migrating birds that feed on them.
As the lake contracts, more land will be exposed to fierce desert winds that can whip sand and foul the air breathed by hundreds of thousands of people.
That’s the backdrop as the state Water Resources Department reworks a draft plan calling for spending $6.9 billion over 75 years to save the Salton Sea. A final version was submitted to the Legislature on April 30.
Though there’s general consensus, something should be done, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will go along with a broad — and expensive — fix. After all, the problem has loomed for years and nearly two dozen proposals to help have gone nowhere.
“If we dawdle around and don’t go after this hard, we’ll end up with a dead sea before we can fix it,” warned Rick Daniels, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a coalition of local governments and agencies. “The fish will be dead and the birds will be gone.”
Ringed by the Santa Rosa, Orocopia and Chocolate mountains, the Salton Sea sits in California’s Imperial Valley, approximately 40 mi. from the U.S.-Mexico border.
On a still day, the lake glistens, reflecting the blue Southern California sky. In the summer, the area is one of the hottest places in the U.S., with temperatures often soaring past 100 degrees.
Stretching 35 mi. long and up to 15 mi. across, the lake is fed primarily by runoff from Colorado River canals used to irrigate fields. There is no outlet — a balance between inflowing water and evaporation sustained the lake for decades.
But as more Colorado River water is diverted to help satisfy the needs of a fast-growing region that includes San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, the balance is broken. With even more water set to be siphoned off to San Diego in coming years, the situation is becoming acute.
“It’s on the verge of collapse,” said Doug Barnum, a U.S. Geological Survey chief scientist at the Salton Sea.
The lake is a critical stop along the Pacific Flyaway, a route for more than 100,000 migratory birds. With more than 90 percent of California’s original wetlands lost, it’s one of the region’s most important nesting sites and stopovers.
Among the approximately 50 endangered and sensitive species are the California brown pelican, Yuma clapper rail and Mountain plover.
Chris Schoneman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, said people don’t seem to realize the sea’s significance.
“If a place like the San Francisco Bay area or the Great Salt Lake lost its wildlife? Man, it would be a huge natural disaster,” he said. “Here, there’s less concern about the Salton Sea as a natural resource.”
It’s not just wildlife that’s threatened. An estimated 134 sq. mi. of dusty lakebed — an area five times the size of Washington, D.C. — could be exposed to desert winds by 2036 if no action is taken.
Imperial County already has the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the state, and experts fear a repeat of what happened in the Owens Valley. Dust storms have plagued that area since Los Angeles began siphoning water south from the Owens River in 1913. Air quality management for the area costs millions of dollars each year.
In 2003, the Legislature passed laws requiring the state to explore alternatives for restoring the Salton Sea. The move coincided with California renewing water transfer agreements with other Colorado River states.
Water Resources officials considered 256 ideas before settling on the draft in March. It calls for a smaller Salton Sea but one that can be maintained and supportive of the current ecosystem.
The proposal includes construction of a 40-mi. (64 km) barrier to create a 34,000-acre (1,376 ha) open-water habitat in the northern area of the lake. To the south, 62,000 acres (25,000 ha) of habitat would be created by building giant berms.
The plan also envisions a complex system of drip-tubing to feed drought-tolerant plants and manage air quality for the estimated 109,000 acres (44,110 ha) of lakebed that will be exposed.
All this would be done over 75 years.
Officials say a combination of state and federal funds, along with local taxes, will pay for the restoration. Annual costs, largely associated with air quality management, will start at $52 million and eventually increase to $125 million.
“There have been 23 previous attempts that have failed to get this far, so we are charting new ground,” Daniels said. “I think this is our last, best chance of getting a project done.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the Legislature, which can accept, reject or revise the proposal.
State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego, has introduced legislation aimed at moving the plan forward.
“If we can all agree this is something that we need to be doing, then you start doing it in phases,” she said.
Water Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said it’s difficult to gauge what lawmakers will do because of the state’s tight budget and many competing demands for funds.
“It’s going to be challenging at best,” Chrisman said.
Woody Rogers, a construction worker, and his wife, Frankie, have owned a home along the Salton Sea for 12 years. Like others in the community, their lakefront property would become desertfront under the plan.
They can accept that provided the sea is saved. But they’re skeptical that will happen.
“Our major concern is that the choices that are made and the implementation is not going to get the result we want — that it’s going to be one of those cases where we got involved and screwed it up,” he said.
For more information, visit www.saltonsea.water.ca.gov or www.saltonsea.ca.gov.