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Salton Sea Canoe Race Organizers Hope Recreation Can Help Save The Sea

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

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

Photo credit: Seathletes

The race course for the North Shore Xtreme outrigger canoe race on the Salton Sea is shown on this map.

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North Shore Xtreme

The first North Shore Xtreme outrigger canoe race on the Salton Sea takes place Feb. 12-14. Details here.

The idea to host an outrigger canoe race on the Salton Sea began as a way to start the racing season earlier, but it has evolved into a dream of something much bigger.

Organizers hope the three-day event, which starts Saturday, shows that recreation is possible on the Salton Sea — and that might help save the sea itself.

In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a destination for recreation. It was a popular resort area with yacht clubs, large marinas and a championship golf course that attracted celebrities.

When Davy Aker, executive director of Seathletes, first posed the idea of a race on the Salton Sea to Tevita Moce, an avid outrigger canoe paddler, Moce said he wouldn't get into the water because he thought it was polluted.

"We did our research and found out that just like his reaction everyone was just like him and felt like it was polluted. So then we thought it's more than just a casual race. It's an opportunity to change the narrative," Aker said.

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, is replenished by runoff from nearby farms. The sea is shrinking, raising concerns that particles from the lake bed would be blown by desert winds into the air, creating public health concerns for residents in the Imperial Valley and as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles.

But the sea itself is not polluted.

"When we did sediment analyses and water quality analyses looking at the sea, we expected to see pesticide residues and things coming off the fields. And, in fact, they're not getting into the sea. They're actually sticking to the very fine soil particles in the fields," said Tim Kranz, an environmental studies professor at the University of Redlands who studies the Salton Sea.

He said that when you look at the water quality it is very salty and high in nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates, from fertilizer runoff. Those nutrients are what cause the algea blooms in the sea.

Krantz said that if you took the salt and nutrients out of the sea, it would meet federal standards for the Safe Drinking Water Act.

That's why he's not afraid to swim in the Salton Sea Saturday.

While the restoration of the Salton Sea is a complicated process, the efforts by Seathletes to change the perception that the sea is polluted and not worth saving are important, Krantz said.

"Our whole mission is to get people inspired to nurture the Salton Sea by giving them the opportunities to actually be on the water," Aker told KPBS Midday Edition Tuesday.

This weekend's event has attracted 60 outrigger clubs in California. That amounts to 250 athletes, Aker said, and 700 spectators are expected.

Following Saturday's race, local Boys and Girls Clubs and teen centers will be joining the athletes to learn how to canoe, which will be the start of a year-round program put on by the Desert Recreation District and Seathletes to encourage kids to get on the water.


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