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.
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."
In the latest news in the ongoing battle of a federal government plan to kill thousands of Double-crested Cormorants in Oregon, a judge last week ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the law when it refused to consider other ways to help endangered salmon. The judge, however, allowed the killing to continue. The Audubon Society of Portland has been leading the legal battle. This issue has been particularly compelling for us at Audubon California given the collapse of a major breeding colony at the Salton Sea.
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