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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Save The Salton Sea

Save The Salton Sea!

 When my father first took me to the Salton Sea 40 years ago, it was one of the most popular recreational areas in Southern California with almost as many visitors as Yosemite. But over the years the vast inland sea has been used as a sump for the polluted leachings of local irrigation districts, causing the once plentiful birds and fish to die. Today, the Salton Sea is experiencing an environmental meltdown. It is already 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. If a solution is not forthcoming soon, the sea and everything that depends on it - fish, migratory waterfowl, and the region's economy - will be dead. The time for environmental studies and reports has run out - either we begin saving the sea now or there soon will be nothing left to save. In the summer months of June, July, and August, 2000, 413 brown pelicans (an endangered species) died. With over 90 percent of California's wetlands gone, these birds are increasingly dependent upon the Salton Sea. When 2 million fish, mostly tilapia, died on August 27-28, the shoreline quickly became a putrefying, malodorous mass of carcasses rotting in 120 degree heat and 75 percent humidity. Formed by accident between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through shoddily constructed irrigation gates south of Yuma, Arizona, the Salton Sea lies within Riverside and Imperial counties near the U.S./Mexico border in southeastern California Nearly the entire output of the raging Colorado flowed into the Salton Basin for several years, inundating communities, farms, Indian reservations, and the Southern Pacific railway. Flooding was finally checked in 1907 by a dike built by railcars dumping boulders into the onrushing waters. By then, the Salton Sea was about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide. The Salton Sea is currently 35 miles by 15 miles and has been as long as 40 miles by 20 during a period when the Mojave Desert got an unusually large amount of rain. It has an average depth of 29.9 feet and, at its deepest location, is 51 feet. The sea contains 7.1 million acre feet of water, 1.3 million acre feet of which evaporates annually. A five-mile-long trench on the south end of the Salton Sea forms its deepest point. Approximately 220 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea lies only thirteen feet above Death Valley, the lowest spot in North America. Irrigation runoff from farms in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and two streams - the Alamo River and the New River - feed the Salton Sea. There is a danger that impending legislation will transfer some of the local farmers' share of Colorado River water to San Diego developers which studies show would make the shoreline recede by more than a mile. The New River originates just south of Mexicali, Mexico, and picks up agricultural pesticides, dead cats, industrial wastes, and human excrement as it flows north. A recent report by the California Water Resources Control Board found that Mexicali is dumping 20 to 25 million gallons of raw sewage into the New River daily because of breakdowns in its municipal treatment system. By the time the New River crosses the U.S./Mexico border near Calexico, California, the river violates water quality standards by several hundred-fold. Border Patrol agents who have jumped into the toxic flow to rescue drowning immigrants have had to be treated for skin rashes and infections. The New River is a caustic cocktail whose ingredients include 26 viruses - hepatitis A and polio to name a few - assorted pesticides from Mexican farms (some of which have been banned in the United States), together with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals from maquiladora factories. A recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control noted that California has twice the rate of infections of two food-borne pathogens associated with human sewage, campylobacter and shigella, than any other state. Still, state and federal legislators are reluctant to do what is necessary to clean up the pollution. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is paying 55 percent of a $50 million addition to Mexicali's sewage treatment facility, it has yet to tackle the pollution which has already been carried across the border and deposited in the Salton Sea. Fecal coliform is at levels of 100,000 to 5 million colonies per milliliter at the border checkpoint, far above the U.S.-Mexico treaty limit of 240 colonies. The New River is so heavily polluted that technicians usually wear two sets of gloves and other protective clothing when testing the water. However, state officials claim that contaminants in the Salton Basin do not exceed acceptable levels and pose no risk to the region's inhabitants, a large proportion of whom are senior citizens. Because the Salton Sea has no outlet, selenium from sewage and agricultural runoff accumulates in the silt at the bottom where it is ingested by pile worms. These worms are in turn eaten by the fish who serve as food for higher life forms - including people. At each successive level of the food chain the selenium becomes more and more concentrated. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, "all selenium compounds are toxic, except for copper and lead selenides. . . their. . . effects. . . resemble those of arsenic, causing lung and liver damage, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pains or cramps. . . contact with selenium or its salts may cause dermititis. . .no more than three parts per million of the element has been suggested as the safe concentration limit in foods." In past years, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service released joint studies in response to concern about drainwater contamination that could "pose a threat" to human beings along with fish and wildlife resources "of the Salton Sea area." One scientific study concluded that "drainwater contaminants. . . are accumulating in tissues of migratory and resident birds that use food sources in the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea. Selenium concentrations in fish-eating birds, shorebirds. . . could affect reproduction." Of even greater concern is the high concentration of arsenic found in local wells. Residents of Pioneertown and Bombay Beach are concerned about carcinogens in their drinking water. Pioneertown, a community of 150 people west of Joshua Tree National Park, has arsenic levels as high as 82.1 parts per billion in its wells (current Environmental Protection Agency standards permit a maximum of 50 parts per billion and the Bush administration is committed to lowering the standard to 10 parts per billion by 2006). The only practical, long range solution is to dig a sea level canal from the Laguna de Salada in Baja California to the Salton Sea. This would keep the sea from getting any saltier and would also provide inland Southern California with a convenient port for international shipping. Sportfishing and other recreational activities would soon return. Marinas could be built along the entire length of the canal, increasing the value of desert real estate in both the United States and Mexico. Since the Salton Sea is presently 220 feet below sea level, a connection with the Pacific Ocean would result in a vast inflow of seawater, expanding the Salton Sea's boundaries to approximately those of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the freshwater lake that filled the Salton basin as recently as 500 years ago.

Salton Sea

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