Salton Sea ‘Anomalies’ Raise Fears of Start of Its Ecological Collapse


Since 1958, experts have warned that unless something is done to prevent salinity at the Salton Sea from rising, its demise as a fishery and wildlife habitat one day would be inevitable.

But now, a series of mysterious biological “anomalies” has raised fears that the long-predicted ecological collapse at this 360-square-mile body of water 150 miles south of Los Angeles may be starting to happen.

At stake is one of the most productive fisheries and wildlife habitats in the state. Upward of 500,000 sightseers, anglers, boaters and bird watchers visit the Salton Sea each year and pump millions of dollars into the regional economy.


Trouble signs were first noticed when perch-like fish called tilapia failed to regenerate in anticipated numbers after a massive die-off that occurred during a cold snap in December.

Soon, hundreds of birds, including cormorants, that used to feed on tilapia began raiding stock at a nearby state Department of Fish and Game warm-water catfish hatchery.

Then in January, unprecedented swarms of insects called water boatmen fled the sea’s brackish waters, took wing and descended on homes and vehicles for miles around.

In February, an estimated 20,000 eared grebes--a migrating waterfowl that winters here by the millions--washed ashore dead.

Meanwhile, “the overall bird population is not normal, there are fewer birds, perhaps because there are fewer fish to feed on,” said Robert Foster, division supervisor at the state Salton Sea Recreation Area. “These could be signs of significant changes taking place.”

The Salton Sea is a non-draining body of water--which is what makes it a sea and not a lake--with no ability to cleanse itself. Trapped in its waters are salt and selenium-laden agricultural runoff from surrounding farms, as well as heavy metals and bacterial pollution that flow in from Mexico’s New River, authorities said.


Biologists say more studies are needed before they can speak with confidence about the potential link between the fish, waterfowl and insect problems. Glen Black, a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, said: “I can see how locals who are non-scientists can start putting all these things together and be concerned that maybe this is the beginning of the end. But it is too early to tell.”

However, he added, “one thing is certain. If the salinity keeps rising, that fishery is going to die. But I can’t put a date on it.”

As it stands, salinity levels at the Salton Sea range from 39,000 to 43,000 parts per million parts of water, Black said. By comparison, the salinity level of the Pacific Ocean is about 35,000 p.p.m.

“In the past two years, the salinity has begun to rise at a rate faster than we have seen in the past 15 years,” Black said. “It is approaching levels at which we are growing concerned about the ability of fish eggs and larvae to survive.”

Phil Meyer, an environmental consultant who prepared a study of the sea in 1988 for a coalition of 17 agencies called the Salton Sea Task Force, said, “You are seeing anomalies that have heightened the urgency of the task force.”

The task force was organized last year by the state Resources Agency to identify long-term solutions to problems at the Salton Sea, and to lobby for public and private funding. Proposals under consideration include a scheme to desalinate the Salton Sea by pumping water out, evaporating it and using residual salts in the process of creating solar energy. Cleaner water would replace the old.

Another proposal calls for construction of a $350-million canal, big enough for pleasure boating, that would link the Salton Sea to the Gulf of California and effect a water exchange, Meyer said.

But the recent danger signs have sped up efforts to establish short-term measures here such as a fish hatchery and stocking program to help maintain the region’s economically important sportfishing industry, Meyer said.

Accidental Genesis

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through a silt-laden canal and roared unimpeded for two years into a natural depression in the desert near Brawley known as the Salton Sink. Filling up the already salt-covered sink, and carrying some salt from the Colorado River, the waters of the sea were salty from the beginning and became more so from the runoff of surrounding farmlands.

Since the 1920s, the Imperial Irrigation District has used the Salton Sea as a drainage area for brackish irrigation runoff from farms in both the United States and Mexico.

Its salinity enabled oceangoing fish such as croaker, corvina, sargo and tilapia to thrive and make the region a haven for tens of thousands of birds and waterfowl, including endangered species such as peregrine falcons, bald eagles, Yuma clapper rails and pelicans.

But the high rate of evaporation in the desert environment, coupled with recent efforts by farmers to conserve water and reduce irrigation runoff, have raised salinity to levels that are harmful to fish and waterfowl.

“Most people here know there is a ticking time bomb in that sea that is going to go off someday,” said Jan Brown, who organizes an annual fishing derby here. “For that reason, you will not see any major new development here until the sea is stabilized.”

In 1986, the state Department of Health Services advised pregnant women and small children to avoid eating fish taken from the Salton Sea because of high levels of selenium, which has been blamed for deforming waterfowl at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge.

Mexican Pollution

Similarly, Imperial County health officials have issued periodic warnings against contact with water flowing into the Salton Sea from the grossly polluted New River, which flows into the United States from Mexicali, Mexico, 30 miles away. In the sea itself, except for the southern end, swimming is not considered risky.

Meyer estimated that half of Mexicali, which has a population of about 1 million, is without sewer systems and considerable amounts of human, livestock and industrial waste wind up in New River water that crosses the international border.

In his report to the task force, Meyer argued that effective management of salinity, flooding and pollution at the Salton Sea could generate more than $200 million in annual recreational expenditures and $670 million in construction activity in the area.

“What it all comes down to is cost versus benefit,” said state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside). “My general feeling is, given the economic benefits, every effort should be made to maintain it as a viable sea.”