Monday, December 22, 2008

All about California's Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program

In 1905, severe flooding caused the Colorado River to overflow which damaged levees and diversion structures along the river, causing the floodwaters to flow into the Salton Sink, which was still dry during that time. The sink was a closed desert basin in the Riverside and Imperial Counties of California which is 200 feet below sea level had no natural outlet. The damages in the diversions caused the Colorado River to continuously flow into the basin for 18 months, forming the current body of water that is called the Salton Sea. The increasing salinity in the sea is putting the area's natural resources in danger which prompted legislation of initiatives calling for a restoration project for the Salton Sea ecosystem.

The California Resources Agency, in coordination with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is spearheading the restoration project for the Salton Sea. The program includes the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the protection of California wildlife that is dependent on this ecosystem.

The Salton Sea is sustained only by inflowing water and evaporation. Without any outlet, salts that were dissolved and brought along by water inflow will be retained. As a result, the salt concentration in the Salton Sea is 30 percent higher than ocean water and is already at 48,000 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Unless an effective restoration program is done to correct the situation, salinity will continue to increase and will have detrimental consequences to the environmental resources in this area in California.

The surrounding area in Salton Sea is mostly agricultural in nature. The sea, which is mostly federally owned, was designated by the federal government of California as an agricultural drainage repository for use with these farm lands. The state provides the resources for the environmental protection and restoration for this basin. The northern end of the sea is home to the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation, as well as the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. The southern end on the other hand houses the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established to reduce the waterfowl damage to crops in the surrounding agricultural lands.

After the sea was formed, fish introductions were made to populate the sea's aquatic resources. Tilapia is predominant, along with Gulf croaker, orangemouth corvina, and sargo which sustains the area's sport fishery as well as provide a source of food for fish-eating birds in the ecosystem. The only endangered native fish in the sea is the desert pupfish.

The increase in salinity in the sea is raising concern for California conservationists regarding the welfare of these aquatic resources, and they are calling for immediate restoration and remedial programs for the sea. Aside from the fishes, other fauna in the ecosystem that could be affected includes the endangered brown pelican, 90 percent of the population of eared grebes in North America, and more than 80 percent of the population of American white pelicans. These birds rely on the aquatic resources, together with more than 50 other species of special status birds, including those that are threatened, endangered or require special attention.

Unless appropriate restoration actions are taken to address the increasing salinity in this California water basin, the aquatic and avian life depending on the sea will be greatly affected. Several solutions have been put forward but were eventually placed on hold due to high costs. Innovative alternatives that are effective but low cost should be developed at the soonest possible time to save the sea and its ecosystem.

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