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Salton Sea Ecosystem May Be On Brink Of Failure

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A bird skirts the Salton Sea's receding shoreline, April 10, 2015.

Tipping Point for Salton Sea


Mike Lynes, policy director, Audubon California


Wildlife experts at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge have found alarming evidence that the salinity of the sea has reached a point where the fish are not breeding.

Biologists noticed that among the dead fish washing up on the shores of the sea this summer, there were no small ones. They were all full-grown. This means the fish are not breeding.

And there's more bad news.

Audobon California Policy Director Mike Lynes says the diminishing habitat is hurting the birds.

“Regardless of whether people think its an accident or not now, there’s not doubt that birds depend on it, and they have very few places left to go," Lynes told KPBS Midday Edition.

As water evaporates, the salinity increases, he added.

The Desert Sun, a Palm Springs-area newspaper, reports that bird species that usually arrive at the sea by the thousands to forage, like the Western grebe, are nowhere to be found. Others, such as the double-crested cormorant, are greatly diminished. Some birds have been found to be starving.

The salinity of the Salton Sea has probably always been high. It became an inland sea when the Colorado River broke through Imperial Valley irrigation canals around 1905, and it has no natural outlet.

The marker that scientists believe denotes a scary level of salinity is 60 parts per 1,000, the tipping point into complete decline and the eventual sterilization of the sea.

Over the last 110 years, the sea has been home to fish and invertebrates. It serves as a crucial refuge for migrating birds with fewer and fewer Southern California wetlands to rest in.

Lynes said restoration of the Salton Sea to health will need a major investment from the state of California and stakeholders such as water districts and agricultural interests. The cost will be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

Audubon's role in the restoration is to develop habitat models to explore how many species are needed to sustain healthy bird populations. A healthy bird population means there are healthy fish and invertebrates as well.

So far the political will to fully restore the Salton Sea has not been evident. Lynes said Gov. Jerry Brown is on board for restoration, as are Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Imperial County) and Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego).


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