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Transferring water from Imperial Valley farms to San Diego and other urban areas could drastically increase the cost of saving wildlife habitats in the Salton Sea, officials believe. Under one proposal, the cost could sky rocket from about $200 million to an estimated $1.6 billion.
Yet state and federal officeholders said last week at the Salton Sea Authority's biennial conference that they remain committed to saving the lake and to the water-conservation projects intended to cut California's overuse of Colorado River water.
Those conservation projects could also hasten the destruction of much of the Salton Sea's rich fisheries and well-populated bird habitat. One of those projects is the transfer of conserved Imperial Valley irrigation water to San Diego County.
"At 380 square miles, this is California's largest inland lake, and it has to be considered an important resource," said state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols. Support for saving the Salton Sea despite the high cost also came from Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, and Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego. Neither opposed the water transfers.
The Salton Sea was formed by accident in 1905 when an ill-conceived irrigation project diverted the Colorado River into the Salton Basin for several months. However, geological studies show the river has done the same on its own periodically over the eons.
The lake has become saltier because it has no outlet and because Imperial Valley's sweltering summers cause the water to evaporate rapidly.
Aside from the native, salt-tolerant desert pupfish, the only fish that survive in the Salton Sea are hearty, salt-loving exotics such as tilapia. Salt levels are expected to become toxic to all fish between 2015 and 2035.
About 300 bird species rest at the sea during their migrations; 100 bird species breed there.
"Losing the Salton Sea means losing one of the most important sites in North America for birds," said Nils Warnock, wetlands director at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.
Tourism is also at risk. An estimated $1 billion in economic activity was generated by the 17 million people who visited the sea in 1997, the latest year for which the Salton Sea Authority had information.
The Imperial-San Diego water transfer and other water conservation projects would reduce the flow of relatively fresh agricultural drainage water into the sea by about 30 percent. This could bring the biological collapse closer to 2010.
Several proposals surfaced during the conference on ways to head off the loss of the sea and its habitats. Hauling off the salt could cost as much as $525 billion over 50 years. The salt could be more efficiently removed in solar salt ponds on land near the sea for an estimated $200 million.
However, the loss of water to the landlocked salt ponds, combined with the loss from the conservation projects, could lower the sea's water level 30 feet or more. If this occurred, coastal bird habitats would dry up and disappear, and boat owners at Salton City would have more than a mile's hike to the water.
This impact could be roughly halved by building salt ponds within the sea itself, but that would boost the price tag to about $1.6 billion.
One new plan calls for dikes to wall off the sea's biologically rich southeastern and northwestern shores, saving 42 square miles of habitat at a cost of $220 million, but allowing the remaining 89 percent of the sea to become toxic.
"We would not get everything we want from the Salton Sea, but perhaps we would get something rather than nothing," said Michael Cohen, senior research associate.
George Ray, a farmer in the Imperial Valley for more than three decades, said no. "Do not attempt to freeze in time a natural process that has occurred over millions of years by spending millions of dollars of public money," he said.