Audubon California is helping shape the future of this remarkable place for birds.
White Pelicans at the Salton Sea. Photo: Robin L
The Salton Sea is one of the most important places for birds in North America and is in danger of losing its ecological value. If it does, we will lose a vital part of the Pacific Flyway and face a toxic dust bowl that will threaten public health for more than a million Californians.
As part of the Colorado River Delta, the sea filled and dried for thousands of years prior to its current, 35-mile-long incarnation, which came into existence as the result of a massive flood of the Colorado River in 1905. The 350-square-mile sea has partially replaced wetland habitat lost to agricultural and urban conversion in the Colorado River Delta, California’s coast, and the San Joaquin Valley.
The sea is a globally significant Important Bird Area. For more than a century, the sea has served as a major nesting, wintering, and stopover site for millions of birds of more than 400 species. Today, tiny Eared Grebes winter by the thousands in rafts far out on its surface. American White Pelicans roost on mudflats and fish for tilapia in its shallows.
Recently, its water level dropped to the point that colonial seabirds began abandoning nesting sites en masse in 2013, and shallow, marshy habitat areas at the sea’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish, particularly at the south end. And in 2017, inputs of Colorado River water that have been maintaining a minimum sea level are scheduled to end, as more water is transferred from local agricultural uses to urban uses on the coast. As less water flows into the sea, it will shrink considerably, becoming more saline and eventually inhospitable to birds, fish, and insects.
Audubon California has the opportunity to help address some of the immense challenges of the Salton Sea.
Research about how much habitat -- and what kind -- birds are using at the Salton Sea should guide restoration.
San Diego Audubon Society recently partnered with an elementary school to educate students about birds that rely on the Salton Sea.
Buried in this mid-December article about negotiations to finalize a plan to avoid shortages at the Colorado River are early details of the much-awaited 10-year management plan for the Salton Sea. This is the plan that the state will eventually rely upon to protect bird habitat at the Salton Sea, and reduce dangerous dust pollution caused as the sea recedes. Anyway, here's what the article says about the plan:
"The document, which was obtained by The Desert Sun, summarizes the state’s proposals for a “smaller but sustainable lake” and lays out broad goals for building new wetlands along the lake’s receding shores to cover up stretches of exposed lake bottom and provide habitat for birds.
The document says an estimated 50,000 acres of “playa” will be left dry and exposed around the lake by 2028. The construction of “water backbone infrastructure” is to begin with ponds where water from the lake’s tributaries will be routed to create new wetlands. According to the 24-page document, which describes the Salton Sea Management Program, initial construction will start on exposed lakebed west of the mouth of the New River “to take advantage of existing permits.”
The draft says that in addition to building wetlands, the state also will use “waterless dust suppression” techniques in some areas. Those approaches can include using tractors to plow stretches of lakebed to create dust-catching furrows, or even laying down bales of hay on the exposed lake bottom as barriers to block windblown dust."
Audubon California has been deeply involved in the process of creating the state management plan, and will continue to advocate for sufficient habitat for birds and other wildlife. A recent report from Audubon California determined that the Salton Sea needs to provide about 58,000 acres of habitat to maintain the bird populations currently using the lake.
Opinion piece in Sunday's Los Angeles Times seeks to put some pressure on the state of Californi to take sufficient action to protect habitat and public health at the Salton Sea:
There have been glimmers of progress. Last fall, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife restoration project got under way at Red Hill Bay in the federal Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge at the lake. It will transform 420 acres of dried-out landscape into shorebird habitat again, and it is already fully funded, leaving the $30 million promised by Washington in September for other projects.
At about the same time the feds went to work at Red Hill Bay, Brown signed a law that mandates the restoration of up to 12,000 acres of exposed lake bed by 2020 (the $80.5 million he set aside in the summer is a down payment on the mandate).
However, even if all pending restoration projects go forward (most haven’t broken ground) only 3,000 acres of dry lake bed would be reclaimed by 2020. A greater sense of urgency is needed if even the most modest of goals is to be met.
Southern California ecology researchers have a strong opinion piece in Sunday's Sacramento Bee about how the imminent diversions of water from the Salton Sea in 2018 could be disastrous for the hundreds of thousands who live around it:
"In January 2018, water that had been flowing into the Salton Sea will be diverted from the Imperial Valley and sent to urban water districts. As a result, the Salton Sea will shrink rapidly, leaving behind vast areas of dry lake bed. These exposed beaches will be a source of highly toxic, wind-blown dust affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of Californians living in the Coachella and Imperial valleys."
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