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Friday, October 11, 2013

Overview of Management and Restoration Activities in the Salton Sea

Pervaze A. Sheikh and Charles V. Stern
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Amanda Marie Levin
Research Associate

The Salton Sea is located in southern California and is considered the largest inland water body in the state. The Salton Basin, where the Salton Sea is located, has supported many lakes and water bodies throughout its geological history. The Salton Sea was created when a canal gate broke in 1905 allowing fresh Colorado River water into the Basin. The Salton Sea is now sustained by agricultural runoff from farmlands in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It provides permanent and temporary habitat for many species of plants and animals, including several endangered species. It also serves as an important recreational area for the region. The Salton Sea has been altered by increasing salinity and decreasing size caused by steadily decreasing water flows into the Sea. High salinity levels and shrinking area have been linked to habitat changes and stressed populations of plants and animals, economic losses in the region, and impaired air quality.

Efforts to restore the Salton Sea ecosystem have been discussed and initiated through state and federal actions. Several studies by state and federal agencies have provided baseline data about the Sea, and some restoration plans have been proposed. The State of California, the Salton Sea Authority, and the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation have devised plans for restoring the Sea. However, none of these plans are being fully implemented. Federal authorities that address restoration of the Salton Sea are generally based on creating and evaluating proposals for restoration, rather than implementing restoration activities in a comprehensive manner similar to other initiatives in the Everglades and Great Lakes. California is pursuing restoration options, but funding for implementing them is lacking.

Whether or not to restore the Salton Sea remains controversial. Proponents of restoration contend that the Salton Sea ecosystem is valuable from an ecological standpoint because it is one of the few remaining large-scale wetland habitats in California for migratory birds and fish. Further, some argue that keeping the Salton Sea intact will stimulate economic development, recreation, and tourism in the region. They note that losing the Sea could cause economic and environmental decline, and could lead to air quality problems from exposed seabeds. Others contend that the Sea should not be restored. They argue that the Salton Sea is naturally declining, as it has throughout its geological history. Further, they note that countering this process will be costly and ultimately not worth the expense. They state that limited restoration funds should be used to restore other natural wetlands in California, such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta.

The decline of the Salton Sea ecosystem is accelerating due to water transfers from agricultural lands to municipal water districts in San Diego under the terms of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, an agreement on how to share California’s apportionment of Colorado River water. The water transfers have resulted in less water flowing into the Salton Sea and accelerated increases in salinity and shoreline recession. According to some scientists, salinity levels may reach lethal levels for most fish and wildlife as soon as 2018. These predictions, along with the steadily declining ecosystem might provoke Congress to consider a larger role in restoration for the federal government. Congress may decide to address restoration by increasing the federal role in restoration efforts. This could be done by funding existing federal authorities that address, or could address, restoring the ecosystem; authorizing federal participation and appropriations for implementing existing restoration plans; or authorizing a new comprehensive plan to be created that might involve participation from federal and non-federal stakeholders, similar to other restoration initiatives around the country. Congress might also decide not to address restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem, or simply maintain the status quo of federal participation.

Date of Report: September 24, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R43211
Price: $29.95

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