Salton Sea

The birds of the Salton Sea need our help

Actress and conservationist Jane Alexander recalls her first birding trips to California's largest lake.

I found myself driving across the Mojave and Sonoran deserts more than a few times back in the Seventies, filming westerns in Arizona and New Mexico. One of these was A Gunfight with Johnny Cash and Kirk Douglas, another Calamity Jane. On one of those trips I spontaneously took a detour south toward the Salton Sea to see the White Pelicans, fully 30% of the wintering US population, and the Eared Grebes which constitute as many as 90%. I have been a birder for much of my life and as I drove I delighted in spotting Ferruginous Hawks low in agricultural fields seeking rodents, and Sandhill Cranes picking up leftover seed where they could find it, and arriving at last at the Sea I was not disappointed in the abundant birds wading the shoreline or the Pelicans seining for fish in long lines.

The Salton Sea is on the Pacific Flyway, sort of a migratory superhighway for over 400 species of birds. It is a sanctuary of water habitat for those traveling in either direction across great expanses of dry desert. It is a little like a service station we humans stop at to refuel our cars and our stomachs; miss it and you are in trouble as you head out across the desert. Millions of birds use the Salton Sea as an important resting stop. Some are uncommon visitors that veer off- course from their usual migratory routes, such as Roseate Spoonbills, Purple Sandpipers, Wood Storks, and Blue-footed Boobys.

The Salton Sink is an ancient inland sea that has filled and emptied, expanded and contracted, over millennia. The modern-day Salton Sea was born of plan concocted in the late 1800s to use Colorado River water to irrigate Imperial Valley farms and use this lakebed to capture runoff. It is now California’s largest lake, and the only place where inland water habitat for birds has actually increased in the last 100 years.

On my first visit in the 1970s, the marina was active and boats were skimming across the water. These days, the boats sit high and dry, hundreds of feet from water, and the marina is dead. The coup de grace will come in 2018 when a deal between the State of California, the Imperial Irrigation District and other water agencies will accelerate reductions in the amount of water going into the sea, eventually by as much as 40 percent.

This will gravely impact the birds and the people who live nearby. A mysterious die off of over 150,000 Eared Grebes occurred in 1992 and things have just gotten worse as the Salton Sea continues to shrink, salinity increases, and algae blooms suffocate the oxygen, causing untenable toxicity. The fish that birds need to survive will cease to reproduce and will die out. Toxic dust from the dry seabed area has created a public health crisis for residents in a region that already suffers from high rates of asthma and poor access to adequate medical care.

The Salton Sea has proven to be a difficult challenge for California to solve. Tucked away in the far southeastern part of the state, this slowly emerging ecological disaster has been easy for elected officials to ignore over the years. I am a member of the board of directors of National Audubon Society, one of several conservation groups that have been working to protect and preserve the Salton Sea.

With the 2018 deadline looming, state officials are rushing to complete a plan for the Salton Sea that will control dust, create habitat and protect the local economy as the sea shrinks.

The State of California recently designated $80 million in its budget for projects to create habitat and accommodate the receding shoreline at the Salton Sea – a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed, but nonetheless the largest investment it has made thus far. Just recently, California officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government affirming their commitment to accelerating solutions at the Salton Sea.

But, to be successful, this plan will require support from Southern California communities, water districts, and all levels of government – and a significant investment of resources

The sooner they get to work, the better. The birds – and the hundreds of thousands of people who live around the Salton Sea – don’t have time to wait.

Jane Alexander is a Tony- and Emmy-award winning actress, four-time Oscar nominee, author and wildlife advocate. She is also a member of the National Audubon Society Board of Directors. She is making a number of California appearances this October to promote her book, Wild Things, Wild Places":

Tuesday, October 18, 8:00 pm
“An Evening with Jane Alexander”
3131 Olympic Blvd
Santa Monica, CA

Wednesday, October 19, 7:30 pm
Talk / Q&A
7815 Girard Ave
La Jolla, CA

Thursday, October 20, 7:00 pm
In conversation with Becca Lawton
140 Kentucky St
Petaluma, CA

Friday, October 21, 7:00 pm
Talk / Q&A
51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Marin, CA

-- visit Jane Alexander's website for details about additional dates

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