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Pollution Plagues Salton Sea on Centennial

The Salton Sea has existed for about 100 years in a closed California desert basin with no natural outlet. And now the Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game are putting a Draft Environmenta

This segment originally aired December 5, 2006. 

The Salton Sea has existed for about 100 years in a closed California desert basin with no natural outlet. Its beauty and pollution have made it the center of both allure and controversy. And now the Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game are putting a Draft Environmental Impact Report on the restoration of the Salton Sea before the public for comment. Producer Paul Alexander Juutilainen looks into the current conditions at the Sea.

Al Kalin, farmer : Most of our farming takes place around the Salton Sea. I’m a farmer here in Imperial Valley. I was born and raised here. I get to see it quite often, and I learned to love it. It’s a shame to see that it’s starting to waste away. We expect that the sea will slowly begin to go down and create all kinds of problems.

The Salton Sea defies easy description. Thirty-five miles long and 15 miles wide, the desert Sea is California’s largest inland body of water. It was created in 1905 when the area flooded as a result of over-eager development. Since then, the Salton Sea has witnessed several failed attempts to build resorts, serious ecological problems including huge fish and bird die-offs, and polluted rivers. Plans to restore the Salton Sea are hotly debated among its residents. One influential group is the Imperial Valley farmers. The valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the U.S. generating over one billion dollars in commodities every year. And the farmers never have to wait for rain.

Kalin: We have the largest gravity feed irrigation system in the world now. All the agriculture that happens in our valley is made possible by the water that comes from the Colorado River.

Kalin : The water travels over 70 miles across the desert. And then from those main canals, feeder canals, there’s multiple canals that deliver the water to the farmer’s fields and dump into the Salton Sea.

Kalin : The water that comes into the Salton Sea brings over 4.4 million tons of salt. Because the Salton Sea is below sea level, there is no exit, so what water comes in has to evaporate. So it gets saltier and saltier, and right now it’s about 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Laura Washburn, Outreach Coordinator, Salton Sea Coalition :As an ecosystem, it’s an incredible place. It provides for more than 400 species of birds, and 2/3rds of the migratory birds in the nation visit the sea or live at the sea.
Washburn : We don’t have 90 percent of the wetlands that we used to have in California. Why we’ve so intensely focused on this place because it’s one of the last places in California where birds can go.

Kalin : Because all of our farm runoff goes into the Salton Sea, it has, it carries with it nutrients and creates hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct, that hydrogen sulfide is released as a toxin that comes to the top and creates a lot of problems, with fish kills millions of fish.

Rick Daniels, executive director, Salton Sea Authority: To allow it to degrade to be an open sewer is irresponsible.

Daniels : And here you’re sitting next to the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs, which is an international resort, a $3 billion a year tourist industry. In 1993, the Salton Sea Authority was formed for the sole purpose of developing a restoration plan. Daniels : In part, because it’s a tourist attraction. It creates new recreation opportunities. It creates opportunities for wind surfing and sailing and kayaking, canoeing. So it’s important in the overall, long-term economic future of this part of the state, that the Salton Sea be restored.
In 2003, an inter-state agreement called the Quantification Settlement Agreement required that California cut back its use of water from the Colorado River. The agreement also mandated the transfer of Imperial Valley water to San Diego. With less water flowing into the Salton Sea, its shoreline will shrink and ecological degradation speed up.
Washburn : The California Resources Agency approached the groups that make up the Salton Sea Coalition and that includes the Defenders of Wildlife, and Audubon, and Sierra Club, and said that they wanted to do a water transfer. And waive some of the environmental protection out here, to do that, and these groups said, “No."

Washburn : After nine months of intense negotiations, they finally got a package of bills together to help protect the area and come up with the restoration plan.

Kalin : One of the major problems is dust that’s created as the sea recedes. And a playa is formed. And the soil is highly saturated with salt. And when the wind blows, it blows onto the farm ground, and it’s very toxic. It’s pure salt, sodium chloride. I witnessed one of these; I call them “white dust storms.” This white dust cloud affected me like tear gas. I was choked in my throat, I couldn’t breathe, my nose burned, my eyes burned.

Daniels: Forty years ago, the city of L.A. went up to the Owens’s Valley, built a canal, drained that lake. What they left behind was an environmental disaster. The number one source of air pollution in the country comes off that dried out lakebed. We in this area cannot allow that to happen here. The Owens’s Valley is a mere fifth the size of the Salton Sea. And if you take that problem, expand it by five, you end up with such a serious air quality problem that the Pacific Institute has said that “it may make the region uninhabitable.”

Washburn : If they do nothing out here, there could be about 120,000 acres of exposed seabed. Wildlife here is from throughout the nation. And they’re migratory birds. Those species could just disappear without the sea. Daniels : The only people we've actually heard encouraging draining the Sea, transferring the water, is San Diego Union-Tribune what we see, is someone’s put on the Frankenstein mask. It is a water grab on the part of San Diego County. To take water from an area, for their prosperity, and steal the prosperity of this area, a largely Hispanic, minority community, that is very poor. And hopefully we’ve evolved as a society that we’ve quit doing that. And it’s disrespectful, it is insulting, it shows cavalier disregard for the environment and for this area. And it’s offensive.
In October 2006, the State Department of Water Resources released a Draft Environmental Impact Report. It includes 10 restoration plans to deal with the Salton Sea. The department will receive public comment on the plans until January 16, 2007. The Secretary of Resources must then present a “preferred plan” to the state legislature by summer of 2007. As yet, no single plan has the agreement of all the shareholders.
Kalin : Some are very expensive, and some are on the cheaper side, but even the cheapest one is a couple of billion dollars, with a "B." And that's a lot of money. But we have a big problem.

Washburn : We’re interested in finding a way that this restoration will benefit everybody in some way. There’s going to be give and take. We’re going to lose some things. We hope we gain some things.

Daniels : We can't have three different plans. A year from now, the goal is that there is a single vision, there's a single restoration plan for the Salton Sea. Daniels : If we go up with a fractured, political base, the legislature won’t act. They’ll send it back for more study. In the meantime, this sea is another day closer to dying.
The Department of Water Resources is holding a series of statewide public workshops to provide an overview and to receive comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report. A Public Outreach meeting is scheduled in San Diego on Wednesday December 6, 6-8 pm at the San Diego Water Authority, 4677 Overland Avenue.

All public comments to Draft EIR must be in writing only and submitted at the public workshops or to the Department of Water Resources by January 16, 2007.