Water-Diversion Plan Threatens California's Salton Sea

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During the spring and the winter an "amazing" variety of species come through here, said Sylvia Pelizza. People visit from all over the world to see the diverse collection of bird life. "It's a very important area, very important."

Millions of birds—ducks, geese, pelicans, shore birds—use the sea each year. To date, 408 species have been seen on its shoreline and riding on its waves. The sea is California's "crown jewel" of bird diversity.

Some have suggested redirecting the water and letting the Salton Sea run dry—returning to the way it was 100 years ago. Others believe the sea should be maintained with a constant supply of freshwater.

"It might have been a valid answer to the Salton Sea years ago, if there hadn't been the development that has occurred in southern California and there were still wetlands available for the birds," said Charlie Pelizza. "But it is kind of irresponsible for us now to say that the Salton Sea go dry." The sea is an essential link in a north-south migration route, he added.

Sylvia Pelizza agreed. "I don't see letting nature take its course. We've lost 95 percent of the wetlands in California alone, and the birds don't have any place to go."

"The Salton Sea is huge—35 miles long and 19 miles wide—with 408 different species of birds," said Pelizza. "We are second only to the Gulf Coast of Mexico where you have all the different diversity there, too."

Saving the Sea

Recognizing the problem, scientists have begun to look at ways to save the sea. "Congress created the Salton Sea Science Office to look at restoration activities," said Charlie Pelizza. "Their mandate from Congress is to look at restoring the sea at its current level and its current salinity."

One innovative suggestion to save the sea involves tapping into underground aquifers. Salton Sea is located in a seismically active area—the San Andreas Fault lies on the north side of the valley—and there are literally hundreds of minor faults that crisscross the area.

There are some underground aquifers that are being superheated in the earth and geothermal plants are bringing that superheated water up, using it to run turbines and then returning the water back into the ground, says Charlie Pelizza. Instead it has been suggested that the plants return the distilled water into Salton Sea. "This is something that is just breaking now, and it might be the panacea for saving the Salton Sea."

This article is part of the Liquid Planet series that airs on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today every Tuesday at 7 p.m. (ET/PT), repeated Wednesday during the day.

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