[Mb-civic] The Observer: Death of nature's man-made haven
harry.sifton at sympatico.ca
harry.sifton at sympatico.ca
Sun Jan 15 06:36:28 PST 2006
Harry spotted this on the The Observer site and thought you should see it.
Note from Harry:
A story to watch, hopefully it will have a good ending!
To see this story with its related links on the The Observer site, go to http://www.observer.co.uk
Death of nature's man-made haven
For 100 years, the Salton Sea has been a sanctuary for birds and poor farmers alike. But now pollution threatens both - and conflict is hampering the desperate race to avert a catastrophe
Juliette Jowit in California
Sunday January 15 2006
Drifting in a boat is the best way to get to know Jack Crayon, a gruff fish biologist. When the din of the engine has lulled, his boat meanders across the shallows of the Salton Sea in bewitching silence.
Water stretches north to the horizon; the landscape is framed by volcanic mountains up to 10,000 feet high. The only sound is the occasional calling and dipping of ducks - hundreds of thousands of ducks - feasting on the vast, teeming fish and invertebrate farm that is the Salton Sea. Crayon's voice, gentler than before, breaks the spell: 'This is what drives the passion of some of us that work here; it's hard when people come on board and they don't know the aesthetics.'
His thick arm gestures: 'If you look out there it's mile after mile after mile of birds. It's hard to get a sense of how important it is until you come out here and do what we did for a whole day, until you see 100,000 or more of one species.'
The Salton Sea is an incongruous salty lake the size of Dartmoor in the middle of the Californian desert. It has become one of the world's most important bird feeding and breeding grounds, used by hundreds of species migrating between the Arctic and South America.
Today though, the lake's very existence is in grave danger, as the water that feeds it is drying up, threatening to leave an almost lifeless salt sump surrounded by a vast toxic dust bowl. Such an event would be a global environmental and public health catastrophe.
A team has now been given until the end of this year to come up with a workable plan to avert this crisis. Its mission is a struggle of our times: a battle to protect nature from the modern agriculture and development, a contest between human gratification and the natural world on which we depend.
The pressure is on because the sea is expected to reach crisis point by 2017, says Chuck Keene, who has worked in the state government's Salton Sea office longer than anybody. 'It will get to the point very quickly, in perhaps less than 10 years after 2017, where the sea will not function biologically in the same way as it has in the past,' says Keene. 'Fish will die, birds - at least fish-eating birds - will cease to come to the sea. So there's a sense of urgency: if we don't do anything we'll basically lose the Salton Sea as we know it today.'
The Salton Sea shouldn't exist. A century ago engineers trying to build a canal for the Colorado river underestimated the power of the water behind temporary gates; it broke through and for two years flooded the Salton Trough, a valley on the San Andreas fault.
It was not the first time that the valley had filled with water; for centuries the Colorado periodically flowed this way to the Pacific, before changing course again. This time, though, there was no outlet to the ocean and the sea remained.
At its biggest, the Salton Sea was 45 miles long and 17 miles wide. As the water level has dropped by 30 feet, so it has shrunk to 35 by 15 miles.
For decades the sea has been in equilibrium as water lost through evaporation has been replaced by rain and run-off from farms, via 1,500 miles of irrigation drains and the New, Alamo and Whitewater rivers.
The wide expanse of shallow sea, often only inches deep, and never more than 50 feet, offers rich pickings in mud teeming with plankton and other invertebrates and, at its peak, supports more than 200 million fish. More than 400 bird species live at the sea or visit each year, two-thirds of all birds recorded in the US. They include nearly all the North American population of eared grebes and American white pelicans, and dozens more species that are threatened or endangered. Abundant herons, egrets, and wood storks live alongside ducks of all types - mallards, pintails, ruddies, and cinnamon teal.
As almost every inch of California's wetlands has been taken over by developers and farmers, the Salton Sea has become essential to the birds' survival. 'For many species, sustaining the sea is a matter of life or death,' claims a report by the Redlands Institute research centre.
It is not just birds that have prospered here. This desert is one of the driest places on earth, with only two inches of rain a year. But by drawing water from the Colorado and warmed in winter by relatively higher sea temperatures, the surrounding Imperial County has become one of the most productive farming areas in the world and America's chief supplier of winter vegetables, melons and date palms. 'The first water melons, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, all come up at the time when they are not available from other parts of the US,' says Al Kalin, who with his brother Carson farms 2,000 acres at the southern end of the sea.
Farming is the lifeline of the county, where two out of 10 adults are unemployed and nearly half the children live in poverty. Half a million acres are under cultivation, supporting at least half of all the jobs, generating up to $3bn (£1.7bn) a year.
Farming is also the greatest threat to the Salton Sea. A century of fertiliser and pesticide-rich water pouring in off fields has created a salty chemical stew in which algal blooms thrive and strangle other life. In the Fifties and Sixties the sea attracted more visitors than Yosemite National Park, to sail, swim, fish and birdwatch. But mass fish and bird deaths and the sulphurous stench of oxygen-starved water drove most tourists away. Along the shore they have left derelict homes, hotels and diners. 'They had big dreams of building resorts along the sea,' says Keene.
Since then, the sea's problems have built up. Every year, Several million tonnes of salt is added to the water, which is now saltier than the Pacific. Nitrates, phosphates and magnesium, have accumulated to dangerous levels, feeding the proliferating algae. Starved of oxygen, three of the four main fish species appear to have disappeared. The only native fish, the desert pupfish, whose eggs can survive years waiting for the waters to come is critically endangered.
The sense of crisis now hanging over the sea, however, was precipitated by an agreement three years ago to cut drastically the amount of water farmers use and thus the amount going into it. In 1922, the seven states through which the Colorado flows carved up its water rights: California won the lion's share - just over a quarter of the 4,477 billion gallons a year which should flow to the Gulf of California.
For decades after that agreement, up-stream states used less than their allocation, and California grew rich by using their water. But eventually, alarmed by their own growing populations, these upper states demanded their allocations back. The Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2002 dictates that in 25 years' time California must be using 15 per cent less Colorado water a year, and the bulk of that will have to be saved by farmers in Imperial County.
There are also heightened concerns that Mexico will cut off flow into the New River, and that climate change will increase evaporation from the fields and sea. Altogether, forecasters predict that in 75 years' time annual inflow into the Salton Sea will have halved.
Without action, experts predict the shoreline would recede to expose 160 square miles of seabed, and the remaining salts and chemicals would be concentrated into a much smaller pool of water in which most fish and insects would be unable to survive.
For the millions of birds this would be devastating loss, says Fred Cagle, the local representative of the Sierra Club, an environmental lobby group. 'In California we have lost 95 per cent of our wetlands,' says Cagle. 'Birds are like airlines: they can only fly a certain distance before they have to refuel, and we have cut out most of their refuelling stops. That's why it's such a critical site.'
For local communities it would be ruinous. Farmers fear they would lose the warming effect of the sea. 'If some plan removes that water and we no longer have that warming effect, we're in a real pickle,' says Kalin. The last remaining birdwatchers who brave the rotten-egg smell would also no longer have a reason to visit.
But the biggest threat to people would be from exposed 'playa' now under the seabed, which would become a vast reservoir of dust full of selenium, arsenic and other elements which have accumulated from farm chemicals or leeched naturally from surrounding soils.
Already parts of Imperial County record particulate air pollution more than 10 times the maximum federal standard, the county has the worst childhood asthma rate in the state, and more than half the population report asthma-like symptoms. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and tuberculosis are all also higher than the state averages, though it is harder to prove a link to the pollution.
Campaigners now fear unless something is done they could suffer the fate of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where dust clouds can be seen on satellite pictures.
In a capacious gym on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation at the northern end of the sea, a few dozen people last month made a small but significant piece of history. It was the latest meeting of the Salton Sea Advisory Committee of scientists, community representatives and environmental lobbyists appointed to come up with a rescue package.
Many have tried and failed to save the sea. There is a renewed sense of urgency though, and the state government, led by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has promised to put up much of the funding and set an ambitious timetable to agree a solution by the end of this year. The group has considered 260 proposals over three years. They have rejected most, including expensive schemes to pump water from the Pacific or build a desalination plant to take out the salts. Last December the group whittled the list down to five, which should be approved for more detailed studies this month.
The five ideas all more or less involve building barriers to save a smaller sea and allow the rest to dry up. But conflicts remain between those giving priority to economic regeneration, or natural habitat or public health. Should the northern part of the sea - better for recreation - be saved? Or the southern, where there is more wildlife?
And what of the cost of building a barrage which would use a 'mountain' of rock, according to Keene? The bill for the shortlist is for up to $10bn (£5.6bn) capital costs, plus $160m (£90m) a year expenses. A study in 1999 estimated a restored sea would support a $6bn (£3.4bn) annual economy, but a dead sea would represent a $1.5bn (£800m) yearly loss.
It is little surprise that some people are questioning the worth of spending billions of dollars preserving something that was an artificial creation in the first place. But most agree with Keene, who says: 'It should be preserved because it provides benefits for wildlife that nowhere else in the world provides.'
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
More information about the Mb-civic