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Let nature take its course.

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
North County Times
December 4, 2001


In 1901, the California Development Company, decided that the California desert had the potential for unlimited agricultural productivity, that is except for less than 3 inches of annual rainfall. Well, humans being humans figured nothing was going to stop them from exploiting cheap land. The problem however, was transporting water from the Colorado River a mere 80 miles away. So the Imperial canal was dug to bring water to the desert.

Silt from the river, however, inhibited the flow, prompting engineers to create a cut in the western bank of the Colorado to allow more water to reach the valley. Unfortunately in 1905 heavy flood waters broke through the engineered canal and the river rushed into Imperial Valley. By the time the breach was closed, a year and a half later, the Salton Sea was formed.

Historic evidence and geologic studies have shown that the Colorado River has spilled over into the Salton Basin on numerous occasions over the millennia, creating intermittent lakes. These lakes, having no natural outlet, would eventually evaporate. Currently the Salton Sea is diminished by approximately six feet annually due to evaporation. That's around 1.3 million-acre feet per year.

Due to irrigation and the resulting run-off the Salton Sea is replenished at roughly the same rate. Therefore if less water is used for Imperial Valley agriculture, less water makes it to the "Sea," thus the natural demise of what should be an occasional lake. A reduction in agricultural water use is now being discussed as part of the San Diego County Water Authority-Imperial Irrigation District water transfer agreement.

In the transfer deal, the SDCWA has agreed to buy up to 71.8 billion gallons of water a year from farmers in Imperial Valley, for residential use in San Diego County. Those opposed to the agreement say that transfer of water will reduce the amount of irrigation runoff replenishing the Salton Sea. This is true. Also true, without artificial irrigation of this desert region, the Salton Sea would not have existed in the first place.

For more than a century, Californians have been manipulating desert environments, and it continues today. As people fight over the water needed to keep this man made lake artificially maintained the biological history of the natural ecosystem is ignored in the name of short sighted economics.

Fish species introduced shortly after 1905 flood did not fair well due to cyclical die-offs related to salinization and eutrophication. Current populations of Covina, Gulf Croaker, Sargo, and Tilapia, introduced since 1950 to revive tourism to the area, also struggle with die-offs, as do bird populations using the Salton Sea during migration. In 1996, Type C avian botulism caused large-scale mortalities of white and brown pelicans, more than 1,000 endangered brown pelicans died, marking the largest reported die-off of an endangered species.

The folks who would like to define this as an environmental issue; say without agricultural run-off the "sea" will die, and with it the fish and birds populations that utilize the "Sea." This is true. What they are not saying is that these populations did not exist before sport fish were introduced to the Salton Sea. This is after all a desert.

With a burgeoning population and a looming water crisis, the last thing California should to do is pump water into the desert to maintain a man made lake and the fish and bird species artificially maintained there. Saving the Salton Sea has nothing to do with protecting the desert environment, and everything with maintaining a bad mistake.

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