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Salton Sea Information Page

California's Salton Sea is a fertile oasis in the hostile desert of south-eastern California. It has been adopted by millions of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway and also attracts human anglers and boaters. Rehabilitating the Salton Sea presents a huge challenge to the local, state, and federal officials that share responsibility for its health, as well as the health of those in surrounding communities.

The Sea defies easy description, challenging preconceptions about conservation priorities. In the 1920s, the President designated the Sea as an agricultural sump, a terminus for the run-off and drainage from the hundreds of thousands of irrigated acres in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Without this agricultural drainage, the Sea would evaporate under the hot desert sun.

Yet this drainage water, rich in the fertilizers applied to fields, has created a tremendously productive ecosystem at the Sea. Fish and invertebrates swim through its turbid waters and dig through its rich sediments, feeding enormous numbers of pelicans, cormorants, skimmers, herons, egrets, rails, and other birds. In all, more than 400 species of birds - the second highest bird count in the country - have been spotted at the Sea and its environs.

The scale of the Sea adds to its complexity, and the difficulty of finding a viable solution. The Salton Sea has the largest surface area of any lake in California, yet is barely 50 feet at its deepest point. More than 1.3 million acre-feet of water flow into the Sea each year, roughly the amount that evaporates from its broad surface. More than four million tons of dissolved salt, and tens of thousands of tons of fertilizers, flow into the Sea annually. Salinity at the Sea now exceeds 44,000 mg/L - 25 percent saltier than the ocean.

The contrast of hydrologic inefficiency (from the state and federal perspective) against the ecological benefits generated by this inflow (from the birds' perspective) is the crux of the problem. The Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer will, eventually, lead to improved irrigation efficiency in the valley, at the cost of decreased inflows to the Sea. This decrease could expose tens of thousands of acres of lakebed, potentially leading to dust storms that could rival those at Owens Lake (site of an on-going $250 million dust abatement program).

Protecting the ecological value of the Salton Sea in the face of these changing conditions will require a rehabilitation plan that recognizes the infeasibility of preserving the Sea at its current state, and instead focuses on creating a flow-through system to address salinity concerns, in conjunction with nutrient and selenium management plans. The Pacific Institute submitted such a 'partial' plan to the Salton Sea Authority in October, 2001. Subsequent alternatives modify this theme, preserving the general concept of a smaller Sea and an outlet.

The current challenge is to ensure that any rehabilitation plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem is ecologically and financially feasible, rehabilitates and preserves avian habitat in and around the Sea, and that it also protects human health in the Imperial and Coachella valleys by limiting the exposure of lake sediments to wind. The broader challenge is to maintain pressure on the state and federal agencies responsible for the health of the Salton Sea and of the people and birds that live in the region, to ensure that these agencies fulfill their obligations, and do not divert existing and likely future funding to other projects outside the area.

The Pacific Institute will continue to meet these challenges, both from its position on the State of California's Salton Sea Advisory Committee, and from its work with the independent Salton Sea Coalition.

[9/27/10] Govenor signs Salton Sea Legislation

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill by Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny to create a new council to oversee the restoration of Salton Sea. The bill to create the Salton Sea Restoration Council passed the Assembly, 51-25, on Aug. 31, the last day of the legislative session. It then passed the Senate, 26-4.

The Pacific Institute, in conjunction with other organizations representing environmental, hunting, and fishing interests, sent the Govenor a letter urging him to sign SB 51 which would establish the Salton Sea Restoration Council as an agency in the Natural Resources Agency to oversee the restoration of the Salton Sea. Read the letter here.

[4/20/04] California's Salton Sea Advisory Committee Appoints Institute's Cohen

To help direct California's effort to develop a restoration plan for the Salton Sea ecosystem, the state appointed the Pacific Institute's Michael Cohen to a seat on its Advisory Committee. More information on the Advisory Committee is available online. The Institute, together with the Salton Sea Coalition, recently submitted comments on the State's proposed scope of work.

[4/03] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IID-San Diego Water Transfer DEIR/DEIS

Download the Pacific Institute's April 2003 comments on the DEIR/DEIS as a PDF or as a Word document.

[3/02] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IA/IOP DEIR/DEIS

Download our March 2002 comments on the Department of the Interior's Implementation Agreement, Inadvertent Overrun and Payback Policy, and Related Federal Actions draft Environmental Impact Statement as a PDF.

Pacific Institute Analysis of the Salton Sea Environmental Impact Statement of January 2000

Press Release: Institute Questions Salton Sea EIS/EIR.

Comments on the DEIS/EIR (PDF)

Project Alternative Costs

Page-Specific Comments on DEIS/EIR (PDF)

Report: "Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea"

Haven or Hazard is now available in full as a download (6 MB PDF). More information on the Haven or Hazard page.


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Cormorants find sunset respite in a snag submerged in the Salton Sea (Photo by Milt Friend)


(9/10) Pacific Institute Urges Governor to Sign Salton Sea Legislation

(03/10) Future of the Salton Sea PowerPoint

(08/08) Save the Salton Sea Op Ed

[07/07] Salton Sea at a Crossroads, Geotimes

[05/25/07] Salton Sea Coalition Urges Immediate Action to Save Salton Sea

[3/05/07] Comments on Bureau of Reclamation's Salton Sea Feasibility Study (PDF)

[2/21/07] Institute, others urge Resources Secretary to act now at the Salton Sea (PDF)

[01/16/07] Institute, Salton Sea Coalition Submit Comments on Draft PEIR

[10/28/06] The best plan for the Salton Sea is yet to come

[10/19/06] Salton Sea Advocates Grade California’s Restoration Plans for the Sea

[5/16/06] New report details the future of the Salton Sea without restoration

[10/26/05] Letter questions Salton Sea Authority's revised plan for the Salton Sea (PDF)

[3/09/05] New report evaluates Salton Sea IWMP (North Lake Plan)

[4/20/04] California's Salton Sea Advisory Committee Appoints Institute's Cohen

[4/03] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IID-San Diego Water Transfer DEIR/DEIS (PDF) or (DOC)

[12/11/02] Salton Sea Threatened by IID Vote

[11/20/02] Water Grab Enrages Environmentalists

[4/23/02] Pacific Institute Analysis of the IA/IOP DEIR/DEIS (PDF)

[12/12/01] Institute Offers Innovative Plan for Salton Sea

[10/01] Salton Sea Improvement Proposal (PDF)

[1/13/00] Institute Questions Salton Sea EIS/EIR

Comments on the DEIS/EIR (PDF)

Project Alternative Costs

Page-Specific Comments on DEIS/EIR (PDF)

"Haven or Hazard" (PDF)

More about the Water and Sustainability Program

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