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Salt-Free Solution to Cleaning Up a California Jewel

The House approved $300 million to restore the Salton Sea in honor of Sonny Bono.

It is a place where clouds of white pelicans skim over bathtub-warm, sun-glittered water, then dive to scoop a meal from fish stocks so abundant that human anglers count it a slow day when strikes come seven or eight seconds apart.

Yet it is also a place of algae blooms, toxins known and unknown, and increasing salinity. A place where mass fish and bird kills can be smelled for miles.

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It is the Salton Sea. And the threat to the bountiful ecological systems in the largest body of water in California has united environmentalists, developers, and politicians in an effort to save what all regard as one of the state's most precious and endangered natural resources.

Perhaps the most vital spot on the Pacific migration routes of millions of birds, the Salton Sea was, until the early 1980s, a tourist destination more popular than Yosemite, says Steve Horvitz, superintendent of California State Parks in southern California. And its restoration was a favorite cause of the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R) of California.

In his honor, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill authorizing $300 million to fund a cleanup, once the precise needs have been determined. A similar bill, introduced by Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D) of California, is working its way through the Senate.

But determining the means by which the Salton Sea can be saved is no easy task.

Created by mistake in 1905 when the headworks of an irrigation project that diverted the waters of the Colorado River broke, the Salton Sea fills an immense, salty expanse almost as far below sea level as Death Valley.

It is fed by runoff from the irrigation projects of Imperial Valley and the Whitewater River in the north, the increasingly polluted Alamo and New Rivers to the south, and a few inches of yearly rainfall. But the sea - which is already 26 percent more saline than ocean water - is apparently becoming more salty every year.

"It is incorrect to say that the Sea is dying," says Mr. Horvitz. "It is evolving into something else, like the Great Salt Lake. But that's a problem if we want to keep the fish and bird life."

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Much of the bird life came when California's population exploded in the 1950s and its coastal marsh and wetlands were all but eliminated. As a result, dozens of species of shore birds, water fowl, and large water birds altered their migratory flight paths to stop at the Salton Sea on their way south. Some species adopted it as wintering-over or nesting grounds.

At certain times, the sea can host nearly half the bird species found in North America. During the winter migration, says Horvitz, "a low estimate would be 4 million [birds] a day." The birds' chatter is so loud "you can't stand outside my office and have a conversation," he says.

Agricultural runoff, pesticides, and parasites have caused problems with outbreaks of disease, but the principal worry is the sea's increasing salinity, says Milton Friend, executive director of the Salton Sea Science Subcommittee.

"We are trying to define the finite level at which the fish population collapses," says Dr. Friend, who is responsible for providing the government with scientific information necessary to base decisions on what remedial action needs to be taken. If the fish population collapses, the birds will have nothing to eat, leading, authorities fear, to the extinction of many migratory species. Various methods of solving this problem this have been suggested, including pumping in fresh water and remove heavily salinated water.

"The cost/benefit ratio of restoring the Salton Sea is very, very large," says Rep. George Brown (D) of California who grew up not far from the Sea. "Just returning it to the economic status it had in the 1960s would produce a couple of hundred million dollars of additional revenue."

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