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Posts Tagged ‘Birding at the Salton Sea’

North Shore Promotion  courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

North Shore Promotion
courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

In the 1950s and 60s the Salton Sea was a favorite resort destination for Southern Californians who boated, swam and fished at its seaside resorts. Desi Arnaz and Dwight Eisenhower golfed there; Guy Lombardo and Frank Sinatra raced boats.

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea
photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

But alarms raised about pollutants caused recreation to plummet and in 1976 and 1977 two tropical storms, both “100 year storms”, followed by seven years of increased rainfall, flooded the resorts and vacation homes, leaving veritable “ghost towns” behind.

At Desert Beach photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

At Desert Beach
photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

Since 1977, a group of dedicated volunteers, the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, working with CA. State Parks and the Salton Sea Restoration Project have been working to clear up false rumors, address bad publicity and get on with the job of restoration. As the Sea and Desert Association’s brochure states: “There is no evidence of the sea being polluted or having any harmful chemical or sewage. It is said that the Salton Sea is cleaner than Lake Tahoe. While dead fish are not a real pretty sight or smell, we are experiencing  the life cycle in action. The fish remain plentiful and healthy…and the fishing is great.”

Still the Sea faces enormous problems, the major one being quickening salinity rises that are bound to occur once agricultural water runoff dries up. This is slated to begin in earnest in 2017 as the Imperial Valley begins to sell its ag water to San Diego. The plans to mitigate what will obviously be profound if not catastrophic results for the Sea and its avian and fish life, seem, to be either prohibitively expensive or too large scale to be realistic. Still there are promising technologies and potential economic uses for by-products of de-salination.

On February 27, 2014 a new way to generate dollars for restoration was put forward—Barbara Boxer, California’s US Senator and two southern California congressmen, Raul Ruiz and Juan Vargas requested, by formal letter, that the Department of Interior designate the Salton Sea as  a renewable energy development area, making it easier to extendi its geothermal generating capacity beyond the current seven plants, clustered in three facilities. Income from new plants could be directed toward restoring the Sea.

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants
photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

The problems are large; the costs high. But the importance of the Salton Sea as a diverse and very rare mixed ecosystem on the Pacific Flyway makes finding a way toward restoration a high priority—for all of us.

For further information see:

http://seaanddesert.org

http://www.defendersblog.org/2013/07/powering-up-at-the-salton-sea/

http://www.news10.net/story/news/politics/2014/02/27/salton-sea-gets-federal-boost/5881913/

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It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

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The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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