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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Western Water

Air Date: Week of

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Southern California for the first time will have to make do with a lot less water from the Colorado River. Host Steve Curwood talks with journalist Clara Jeffery about how the Salton Sea, a bizarre manmade desert lake, came to play a major role in failed water-sharing talks.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Snowmelt off the Rocky Mountains in seven states feeds the Great Colorado River. For generations this river has been generous, and from Wyoming to Los Angeles its waters spurred immigrant settlers to plant crops and multiply. But today the river is overtaxed. Cities need more water and their clout is growing against farmers.

California has been consuming more of its allotted share of the Colorado’s water for decades. But on January 1st, the federal government said, “enough.” Interior Secretary Gale Norton called the move a turning point.

NORTON: The future of the Colorado River will be shaped by drought and population growth. We no longer have abundant surpluses and full reservoirs. The era of limits is upon us.

CURWOOD: Failed negotiations on how to divvy up the water between farmers in Southern California’s Imperial Valley and residents of the San Diego area led to the restrictions. The unexpected sticking point was the Salton Sea, a putrid and shrinking man-made body of water that would dry out without runoff from farms.

Clara Jeffery is a journalist who has written about the Salton Sea for Harper’s Magazine. Clara, how would this body of water and the agricultural runoff that maintains it wind up as the lynchpin of the entire water deal?

JEFFERY: This all goes back to a Coolidge administration law known as the Law of the River that determined how much water each of the seven states in the Colorado River Watershed would get. For years and years almost since the law was passed, California was using way more water than it was allotted, but because the other states were fairly unpopulated, nobody minded. However, as Vegas and Phoenix and other cities in the southwest started to boom, those states wanted their share of the water.

So, during the Clinton administration a deal was brokered in which California would slowly be weaned from its overuse of the Colorado River. In order to do that, California had to sort out its own internal water disputes. So, San Diego, looking at its coming growth, wanted to take some of the water that was now going to the Imperial Valley and use it for its own purposes. So, unless the Imperial Valley agreed to give up that water, the inner California deal would fall apart and therefore, the larger seven state treaty couldn’t be enacted either, which is what happened on December 31st.

CURWOOD: Now, the Salton Sea, in fact, is a sea, if I understand this correctly, in that it’s salty water. Tell me, what’s the ecology of the Salton Sea?

JEFFERY: The Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, although technically it’s a lake. Because it’s only fed by the runoff of the nearby farms at this point, not only is it saltier but it has a lot of fertilizer in the water.

So, the sea basically has two problems; one is that it’s so salty and if it continues to get saltier it won’t be able to support any fish at all. The other problem is that this runoff causes the algae in the sea to bloom and when it then dies the decomposing algae takes all the oxygen out of the water and so all those fish then die. When this happens, you can have rafts of dead fish that stretch on for acres and acres.

CURWOOD: This doesn’t sound like exactly the most pleasant place to visit or be a part of. What do you see and smell when you go to the Salton Sea?

JEFFERY: Well, the first thing you notice is the smell. I mean, you can smell it from miles and miles away. The second thing you notice as you start to approach the sea is that where there should be sand, it’s all bone. So the beach is composed of fish skeleton bones, ground up at first but then as you get closer to the waterline, they’re sort of full carcasses being disemboweled by birds. It’s not a particularly attractive sight close-up. From far away it’s absolutely gorgeous: mountains ringing a beautiful sea.

CURWOOD: This description of what’s there doesn’t make it sound like it’s an obvious poster child for conservationists.

JEFFERY: It doesn’t, and that’s really helped people who want to take the water from the sea and take it to the cities make their case. In fact, the issue is that California has drained 92 percent of its wetlands over the past hundred years and the Salton Sea is the only stop on the Pacific flyway for 400 species of migrating birds that use it. There’s a lot of water there, there’s a lot of fish there, and the birds need this place to land and to re-fuel. There’s no place left for them.

CURWOOD: Now, if the municipalities get the water from the Salton Sea area, what happens to the sea itself?

JEFFERY: Well, that’s the problem. The water would be taken actually out before it even reaches the sea, because it’s this incredibly elaborate system of canals and irrigation aqueducts and dams and so forth that are networked all over Southern California. If that water goes to San Diego, the sea gets that much less runoff water and the sea starts to dry up, the salinity problem becomes worse.

When the sea dries up, possibly there could be a sort of dustbowl situation as there was in Owens Valley when they took the water to feed LA 50, 60 years ago. And, you know, it’ll be an ecological disaster.

CURWOOD: Well, let’s look ahead in the future. What do you think comes next in terms of Southern California’s water wars?

JEFFERY: Well, this can go on for only so long. The Salton Sea is a good example of how we’re living past our means. And at the sea you can really see those bills mount. Southern California just hasn’t made much of an effort, nor has the rest of the nation, to enact any sort of conservation or responsible use policies. And if the Salton Sea collapses, there’s going to be a lot of lawsuits from environmentalists, from homeowners.
And one of the main problems holding up this deal is that the farmers and the Imperial Valley irrigation district are afraid that they’re going to be the ones that are sued if they give the water to San Diego. They asked San Diego to take on some of that liability and San Diego consistently refused. So, they want the water but they don't want the responsibility.

CURWOOD: Clara Jeffery’s article on the Salton Sea was published in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine. She’s a former editor at Harper’s, now deputy editor at Mother Jones. Clara, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

JEFFERY: Thank you, Steve.



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