Saving the Salton Sea

Posted by ardeidae on August 24, 2005

In the last week, I’ve touched a bit upon the Salton Sea. “Sultry Salton Sea” reported some of the birds I’d seen while on a trip there on August 14. It’s quite amazing the number of species and overall amount of birds that the Salton Sea is responsible for supporting. “Help Restore the Salton Sea” called for help in urging the California congress to allocate state funds to necessitate the restoration and preservation of the sea.

As I passed by the Salton Sea on the way to Arizona about ten years ago, I was really impressed by its size, but couldn’t really appreciate what it had to offer since I only saw it from the highway doing 60 miles per hour. At a Los Angeles Audubon meeting earlier this year, I was reminded of the Salton Sea by a presentation given by Kathie Satterfield, Salton Sea Campaign Coordinator with Audubon California. Kathie did a wonderful job narrating the history and beauty of the Salton Sea, the importance of the sea to both wildlife and humans alike, and also the incredible political challenges that the sea faces just to keep its shores from drying up.

I now understood the significance of the Salton Sea and the impact it has on the area wildlife. I also realized the urgency to save it. I talked with Kathie afterward and she later sent me some information from her program that I am passing on to you:

Audubon and the Salton Sea

Wood StorkWhat happens at the Salton Sea is as important to birds as was the first Audubon fight to keep them from being slaughtered in the name of fashion. Not only because of the sheer numbers of birds affected, (literally millions), but also because water is rapidly becoming so scarce that it is imperative we backup the fight we started at Mono Lake and continue ensuring that wildlife has a legal right to water and that providing water for wildlife is considered a “beneficial use” of water.

So, why won’t the birds just go somewhere else if the Salton Sea dries up?  In the 1800’s California had 5 million acres of wetlands. In the year 2000 California had about 450,000 acres of wetlands left—so birds from the Pacific, Central and Atlantic flyways, all use the Salton Sea as a stopover spot. This translates into literally MILLIONS of birds using the Sea and surrounding agricultural lands, some traveling from as far north as Russia and as far south as Peru. The Sea hosts HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of shorebirds (44 different species) during their winter migration.

White-faced IbisScarcity of water is the threat to the Salton Sea ecosystem right now.  California has been forced to reduce its use of Colorado River water and an agreement, known as the QSA, was signed in September of ‘03 that enables the transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego County Water Authority.  This is water that is currently used to irrigate agricultural fields and then runs off into the Salton Sea.  Thus, when implemented, the size of the Salton Sea will be reduced, by as much as half.  It is foreseeable that this will also entail fallowing of agricultural lands, further reducing bird habitat in the area.

An important point to remember is that many of the bird species need both the flooded fields and the sea to survive.  So it isn’t enough to simply save the Salton Sea—we must also save the surrounding agricultural lands that provide habitat. Or, we may wind up winning the battle, but losing the war.

TreeIt also seems likely that there will be additional water transfers in the future—further degrading this ecosystem and facilitating growth in the surrounding cities of San Diego and Riverside counties.

You can make a difference for the millions of birds depending on the Salton Sea Ecosystem. From time to time, as events warrant, Audubon California will send out mailings or urgent notices concerning actions being taken at the Salton Sea. If you are willing to join me in ensuring the continued survival of our migratory birds, please send an email with your contact information to: advocate@audubonsaltonsea.org  (This information will not be shared with anyone).

Kathie Satterfield
Salton Sea Campaign Coordinator
Audubon California

Photos courtesy of Henry Detwiller of Southwest Birders.

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