California's Famed Salton Sea Is Drying Up

Norm Niver is old enough to remember when California’s Salton Sea was a rich ecosystem and a coveted tourist destination. The retired electronics-shop owner, 77, was a teenager when he first saw California’s largest lake—formed by accident when the Colorado River broke through a levee in 1905, flooding the low-lying Salton Sink southeast of Palm Springs. Niver recalls pleasant vacations fishing for saltwater species like orange mouth corvina, sargo and gulf croaker. Millions of migratory birds used the lake as substitute wetlands as development destroyed the state’s natural marshes. Humans flocked to the lake, too. In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was in vogue as “California’s Riviera.” Subdivisions and a fancy yacht club sprang up on the shores, and it became a playground for Rat Packers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

But now, Niver says his paradise is "drying up and dwindling away." Increasing salinity, thanks to evaporation, salty agricultural runoff and lack of an outlet, has made the water 25 percent saltier than the Pacific, killing off marine fish introduced in the 1940s. “Now we have nothing but wall-to-wall tilapia,” Niver complains—and even those salt-loving fish lie rotting on the shoreline thank to stepped-up salinity and giant algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen. Well-heeled tourists stopped coming decades ago (though birders still come), replaced by a working-class culture of snowbirds, retirees and renegades. Without help, Niver and other locals now believe the sea’s days are numbered. “We are afraid the sea could die at any time; there’s a serious sense of urgency,” says Rick Daniels, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a group of local and tribal governments formed in 1993 to push for a rescue plan. The sea’s pressing environmental problems and offbeat characters are even the focus of a recent documentary narrated by underground film director John Waters, “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” which airs June 26 and 29 on the Sundance Channel.

Help may be on the way. Late last month, California Secretary of Resources Mike Chrisman unveiled an ambitious $8.9 billion, 75-year plan to revive the dying sea. Chrisman’s plan, mandated by law, calls for saving the sea by reducing it to about one fifth of its current size. The proposal calls for the building of a 45,000-acre recreational marine lake—shaped like a horseshoe, held in place by a rocky walled shoreline and intended for fishing, boating and waterskiing. Engineers would lower the salt levels of the rejiggered sea to Pacific levels, so the marine species Niver loved could thrive again. The plan also calls for an additional 62,000 acres of wetlands—like habitat for other fish and millions of birds. Chrisman's proposal aims to improve water quality and, on the new shoreline, prevent dust storms by stabilizing the soil with salt-loving plants. The plan, which Chrisman calls a “75-year vision” to avert ecological disaster, was chosen from hundreds of alternatives, including piping water from the Gulf of California to the sea. “It was a stakeholder-driven process,” says Chrisman. “The restoration must be biologically sound and has to have local support. In my view, this is the best of what we’ve got.”

Environmentalists and locals applaud the call for early construction of habitat for birds and fish. But the Salton Sea Coalition, a group of 13 environmental organizations, complains that the current plan spends billions needlessly on a recreational lake that will only benefit developers anxious to erect more subdivisions near the sea. "Let developers pay for the lake since they are the ones that will benefit," says Julia Levin, a policy director for the National Audubon Society. The Coalition favors a scaled-down $2 billion plan that would restore wetlands and improve water and air quality. But Daniels of the Salton Sea Authority, which represents local interests including developers, counters that the lake will provide additional habitat for birds and fish. Still, he worries that the horseshoe shape may not be attractive to boaters and other recreational users. And many locals don't want the lake shrunk at all.

Everyone agrees on one thing: the Salton Sea restoration is largely unfunded. Chrisman himself says it’s up to the California Legislature to “sort out” funding sources, and expects “a combination of state, federal, local and private dollars” to cover costs. “We’re very hopeful we’ll get the funding, there are no guarantees,” he says. But there are signs some money may flow. State Sen. Denise Ducheny, a San Diego Democrat, says about $90 million in state and federal funds are now earmarked for the first five years of the restoration project—in part to pay for desperately needed "early habitat" for fish and birds. Money to build the new lake, estimated to cost from $4 billion to $7 billion, would be harder to come by. Daniels says local governments figure they can raise about $1 billion to foot part of the bill. And Senator Ducheny says it’s not crucial to find all the money now. “We don’t need all of the money ($8.9 billion) to start restoring the sea,” says Ducheny. “I don’t think we need to panic. Some of the money won’t be necessary for 10 or 15 years.”

Most agree with Ducheny that some restoration should begin immediately. That’s because the Sea’s water is about to disappear more rapidly. In 2003, a series of agreements laid out a 75-year plan that commits some Colorado River water to be transferred from Imperial Valley farms to San Diego coastal communities—meaning that some agricultural runoff will no longer replenish the lake. Environmentalists estimate that the water sources now sustaining the sea will decline by roughly 30 percent in the next 20 years. If the sea were allowed to die, the birds and thousands of tourist bird watchers would cease to come. Gigantic clouds of salty dust from the dry lakebed could become one of the largest sources of dust in North America, threatening communities that ring the sea as well as the Imperial Valley, where the childhood asthma rate is already high. And food supplies could be damaged—the lake’s waters warm the winter winds blowing over the valley, enabling early winter crops of lettuce, broccoli, corn and other vegetables that help feed the nation.

Niver, who is profiled in the “Plagues and Pleasures” documentary, is glad that the sea’s problems are finally being addressed. He would love the sea to be restored to its heyday in the 1950s, but he calls himself a “realist” and believes the Chrisman plan is better than no plan at all. “I have thousands of big white pelicans in front of my house,” he says. “I keep a light on at night so they can feed. I have my own habitat here.” Niver hopes his habitat—and that of the fish and birds—can make a comeback. Perhaps he may soon get his wish.