The Salton Sea straddles Imperial and Riverside Counties,
and sits at the intersection of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts,
in a basin 277 feet below sea level, known as the Salton
Sink. Historically, the Colorado River would periodically
change course and flow into the Salton Sink, creating ancient
Lake Cahuilla. When sediments from the Grand Canyon and
the Colorado Plateau would change the course of the river,
the lake would be cut off and a cycle of drying would take
place. These cycles of drying and filling have occurred
into modern times. Between 1824 and 1904 the Salton Basin
was flooded by the Colorado River at least eight times.
In 1905, due to poor engineering and higher than normal
flows, the Colorado River broke through an irrigation channel
and flowed unchecked into the Salton Basin for a year and
a half, creating our present day Salton Sea. Today the Salton
Sea is 360 square miles; 35 miles long, 15 miles wide and
approximately 51 ft deep. (In 1907 the Salton Sea was 30
feet higher and covered 400 square miles).
Today, very little Colorado River water ever reaches the
Gulf of California. Much of it is ultimately vented into
the Salton Sea as agricultural runoff and urban wastewater.
These days, this is a precious resource for migratory birds.
As you well know, in the 1800’s California had 5 million
acres of wetlands. In the year 2000 California had about
450,000 acres of wetlands left – so birds using the
Pacific, Central and Atlantic flyways, all use the Salton
Sea as a stopover spot. This translates into literally MILLIONS
of birds using the Sea and surrounding agricultural lands,
some traveling from as far north as Russia and as far south
as Peru. The Sea hosts HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of shorebirds
(44 different species) during their winter migration.
by Henry Detwiler, Southwest Birders
In September of 2003 an agreement know as the Quantification
Settlement Agreement, (QSA), was agreed to by the state
of California, four water agencies and a number of environmental
groups. This agreement implements the Colorado River Plan,
which requires California to substantially reduce its use
of Colorado River water and provided for the transfer of
200,000 acre-feet of water, per year, from the Imperial
Irrigation District (which holds the rights to approximately
70% of California’s Colorado River water allocation),
to the San Diego County Water Authority for urban users
in San Diego, and as much as an additional 100,000 acre-feet
of water, per year, to the Coachella Valley. This means
that water flowing into the Salton Sea will be reduced by
that same amount, hastening the decline of the Sea.
Three legislative bills were passed to codify the QSA. The
first, SB277, created a Salton Sea Restoration Act, which
states that restoration should be based on a preferred alternative
to be developed by a restoration study. It also states that
this preferred alternative shall provide the maximum feasible
attainment of the following objectives:
Restoration of long-term stable aquatic and shoreline
habitat for the historic level of diversity of fish
and wildlife that depend on the Salton Sea.
Elimination of air quality impacts from the restoration
Protection of water quality.
second bill, SB317, set out the restoration process, and
the third bill, SB654, authorized the use of up to $50 million
from Proposition 50 for restoration planning and feasibility
studies. It also requires that reductions in California’s
use of Colorado River water be consistent with the State’s
commitment to restore the Salton Sea. It finds that restoration
is in the state and national interest, and recognizes the
national and international significance of the wildlife
values of the Salton Sea. It also provides authority to
waive the Fully Protected Species Act and it allocates the
environmental mitigation costs of the water transfer among
the various parties and the state.
What if we don’t try to restore the Salton Sea? A
report put out by the Pacific Institute, entitled, “Hazard:
The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project”
(available free at http://www.pacinst.org/reports/saltonsea/index.htm)
gives these key findings:
By 2018, the surface elevation of the Salton Sea will
drop about five feet, to roughly -233.6', reducing
its volume by 16% and increasing salinity by a third.
The shrinking Sea will expose some 26 square miles
of lakebed, which could increase dust emissions by
Water quality will continue to be poor through 2018.
The combination of rising salinity, low oxygen concentrations,
infestation by parasites, hydrogen sulfide-generated
fish kills, and a declining prey base will likely
eliminate most fish in the Sea by 2018.
The Sea currently attracts tremendous numbers of birds
- 407 species have been identified in the region.
The shrinking Sea will degrade birds' roosting and
breeding habitats, connecting islands to the shore
and exposing those snags still standing. Macro-invertebrate
populations will continue to decline, decreasing food
resources for grebes, some ducks, and many shorebirds.
The 10-12 years after 2017 will witness dramatic changes
at the Sea: its elevation will fall by 20 feet, its
salinity will triple, and its current fauna will be
replaced by tremendous numbers of brine flies and
brine shrimp. As the Sea's volume decreases by as
much as 70% and its waters mix more frequently, concentrations
of selenium and other contaminants will rise sharply.
Bird disease and selenium toxicity will rise, though
the tremendous brine fly/shrimp food base will attract
large numbers of several species of birds.
By about 2031, more than 130 square miles of lakebed
will be exposed, which could generate an additional
86 tons of PM10 a day on average - a third higher
than current emissions in the basin.
Within about 55 years, rising salinity will largely
limit the Sea's biota to green algae and cyanobacteria,
a richly productive primordial soup, of limited value
to people or birds.
The report clearly indicates that failing to implement
a restoration plan will carry exorbitant costs, in
terms of human health, ecological health, and depressed
Where are we now?
The state evaluated eight alternative restoration plans
and has now released its draft preferred alternative, which
is essentially a hybrid of several of the alternatives.
Estimated cost for this is $7 billion, (the new cost estimate
is in ‘phasing information’, posted at http://www.saltonsea.water.ca.gov/,
and it contains the following elements:
The Saline Habitat Complex will be a total of 62,000
acres (this is essentially the shallow water habitat
the birds need).
A Marine Sea of 34,000 acres, to be formed by 2022
and have a salinity of less than 40,000 mg/L by 2023.
(This would be a deep lake for recreational use, larger
than Lake Havasu, which is 21,000 acres and smaller
than Mono Lake, which is 41,600 acres)
Exposed Playa of 109,000 acres. (This is the area
that will dry up and require dust control to maintain
healthy air quality).
Brine Sink of 29,000 acres, with salinity of less
than 200,000 mg/L until 2027. (This is where the excess
salt will go)
do we want to go?
Audubon California is concerned that the State and Federal
Government will not have $7 billion to spend on restoration,
nor should they. Public funding should go first and foremost
to pay for habitat restoration, air quality and water quality
mitigation. Since the remainder of the cost – for
the large northern lake – is primarily for recreation
and local economic development, we feel private and local
entities should pay those costs. We are, therefore, working
to have the implementing legislation, SB 187 (Ducheny) written
to include the following provisions:
the final preferred alternative will be designed and
constructed in phases to ensure that the shallow saline
habitat complex and air quality mitigation measures
are built and implemented first;
the final preferred alternative ensures that funding
and water are used first to satisfy habitat and air
the project level EIR is developed in an open and
public manner similar to the process used to develop
the programmatic level EIR; and
construction of a marine lake (or lakes) is subject
to these additional conditions:
90 percent of its cost is borne by local entities,
either public or private or some combination of the
the source and transport of construction materials
comply with all requirements of state and federal
wildlife and environmental protection laws;
all land transfers required to construct shallow saline
habitat complex have been completed prior to commencement
of construction of the marine lake(s);
sufficient water is allocated for wildlife and air
quality needs and the size of the marine lake(s) will
not encroach on the water needs for wildlife and air
a marine lake at the northern end of the Sea is supplied
by the Whitewater River without additional pumping
from the New and Alamo Rivers; and air quality impacts
from construction do not exceed state and federal
legislation is finalized we will again call on our membership
to contact their representatives to ensure the passage
of this essential bill on behalf of the birds and other
wildlife we love so much. If you would like to add your
voice to our Salton Sea “Audubon Chorus”
please contact Kathie Satterfield at