Water-Diversion Plan Threatens California's Salton Sea

National Geographic Today
September 24, 2002

At first glance, the Salton Sea appears like a glistening mirage in the California desert—a shimmering landscape of reflected sky and sand. But Salton is no mirage—it is a bird-watcher's paradise with more than 400 species and waters that thrive with millions of fish. However the sea's very existence, and all the species that call it home, is threatened by a new proposal that would redirect its only water supply.

The Salton Sea is in peril—it is already 25 percent saltier than the Pacific and it is in danger of becoming so salty that it will no longer support life.

Because the demand for water in California's metropolitan areas is so great, the state is considering a proposal to divert freshwater that would normally flow into the sea, to western cities.

Without freshwater, evaporation will cause the water level to drop and the sea will become saltier, faster, said Charlie Pelizza, a wildlife biologist at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge. "The implications are that the salinity will go up to the point where fish won't reproduce or survive."

A Prehistoric Lakebed

If the salt level reaches that critical stage, the sea's ecosystem will change irreversibly, said Pelizza. This could happen in as little as 20 years. If the fish disappear, so will the birds that depend on the fish and other organisms for food.

The sea is located at the head of the Imperial Valley, one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the United States—a desert brought to life by water from the Colorado River. And it is the Colorado that gave life to the sea.

The Salton Sea was created serendipitously in 1905 when engineers were diverting Colorado River water 75 miles to the farms of the Imperial Valley. But the Colorado River, swollen from heavy rains, breached the dikes and for 18 months the entire volume of the river gushed into the Salton sink—a prehistoric lakebed—creating a 376 square mile desert lake, the Salton Sea.

"The sea is in the agricultural valley here. All the water that they use to irrigate eventually dumps into the sea here," said Sylvia Pelizza, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The sea is closed, there is no outlet. The only way we get water into the sea is through agricultural runoff and the Alamo and the New River and the White River on the north side."

"It's awe-inspiring here," said Charlie Pelizza. "It is surrounded by mountains; it is one of the largest bodies of water inland California; and it has a huge diversity of wildlife species, year-round."

California's "Crown Jewel" of Bird Diversity

Continued on Next Page >>


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