As Salton Sea faces ecological collapse, a plan to save it with ocean water is rejected.
The Salton Sea sits in the heart of California’s Baja Peninsula, at the foot of a long-isolated mountain range. It has been so dry and so windy since the 1950s that saltwater from storms and evaporation that entered the lake has become a brine, like thickened battery acid.
In the fall of 1997, the Sea, which receives a third of its water from the Colorado River, was so parched that tourists were banned from entering, and locals were evacuated. The following spring, after being replenished with runoff from groundwater, a visitor wrote to the Nature Conservancy and asked whether he could bring their dog for a walk.
“I’ve walked out on the Salton Sea and I’m glad I did,” said Jerry DeWitt, a scientist with the Conservancy. “It is a great big desert, and I never saw anything like it.”
Two years later, a federal judge gave the land agency that governs the Salton Sea, the Salton Sea Authority, 90 days to come up with a plan to save the lake. The agency, which includes several government agencies that had previously ignored the problem, responded by promising to find a solution.
In April of 2003, a panel of six scientists, one oceanic biologist and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented a solution. They argued that an underground flow of water from a deep aquifer that feeds the lake would not be affected by the drought, and that the Salton Sea could be restored with one billion gallons of water each year.
In the end, the plan was rejected by a panel of the National Marine Sanctuary Council, the agency that reviews proposals for marine sanctuaries.
The decision could set up a test case before the U.S. Supreme Court about how the government can regulate the use of public property, and in the case of the Salton Sea, how water can be extracted from the ground without the public’s input.
“The Salton Sea is the country’s largest inland estuary,” said Jonathan Shay, director of the National Marine Sanctuary Council. “It’s