An interagency effort has spawned a plan for long-term scientific assessment and monitoring of the Salton Sea, as projects begin to stem what could be disastrous results if the body of water shrinks rapidly after supplemental water from the Colorado River is shut off in 2017.
“This monitoring and assessment plan is intended to provide the foundation for making progress on improvement of conditions at the Salton Sea,” U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Anne Castle said in a prepared statement earlier this month.
The salinity of California’s largest lake, already one and a half times that of the ocean, will reach a point where it kills a huge population of talapia, which are virtually the only fish that can survive the Salton Sea’s die-off, said Jack Crayon, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who for 11 years has been studying the fish populations in this critical resting spot for Western migratory birds.
“It could happen any day,” Crayon said. “At some point, tragically, there are not going to be any fish left (in the Salton Sea.).”
Early next year, the state agency hopes to begin construction of two large ponds, totaling about 600 acres, to provide a new home for some of the sea’s talapia, so that migratory birds can still find food on their journey from Alaska to South America, Crayon said.
Establishing the monitoring plan is important so that projects like that can be evaluated, said Kim Delfino, California project manager for Defenders of Wildlife.
“We need to understand if these potential fixes are taking us to where we want to go,” Delfino said.
Usually, monitoring techniques are the last thing to be developed in a project, Delfino said. “It’s great to see that this is coming in on the beginning,” she said.
The Salton Sea, in Riverside and Imperial counties, is likely the most important location for migratory birds in the Western United States, Delfino said, noting that two-thirds of the migratory bird species on the continent have been found in an area around the Salton Sea.
If this body of water — and its fish food source — is lost, there is no alternate Plan B area for them to go. “California has lost 90 percent of its wetlands,” she said.
Crayon said that the ponds his agency hopes to build early next year are “a bit of a band-aid” and not a fix.
“We can’t just stand around waiting for the big projects,” he said.
When state decision makers are ready to spend money for the Salton Sea remediation, the monitoring plan “will give them the best technical information,” said Crayon, who worked on the team developing the monitoring assessment.
The state developed a $9 billion plan to save the Salton Sea, but funds are not available said Bruce Wilcox, Salton Sea project manager for the Imperial Irrigation District,
“We need to get a plan that matches the funding,” Wilcox said.
Imperial County, the Salton Sea Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District favor a plan to develop renewable resources in the area around the Salton Sea, which will partially fund renovation efforts and cover some of the exposed lakebed, so that it doesn’t become airborne as dust, creating a health hazard.
The team developing the assessment also included members drawn from the state Department of Water Resources, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, academia and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Jim Steinberg covers the city of Fontana for The Sun and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Reach the author at Jim.Steinberg@inlandnewspapers.com or follow Jim on Twitter: @FontanaNow.