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They came from all across the United States -- politicians, environmental activists, park rangers, and urban planners -- to meet under a tent at a dried-out marina at the Salton Sea. They stood awkwardly in ankle-deep cracked dust amid dead fish and skeletal trees, grinning and holding shovels for photographers. The small crowd of people gathered near a pier at the Red Hill Bay, now hundreds of yards from the waterline, to break ground for a $3.5 million wetland rehabilitation effort there.
This 450-acre restoration project is tiny relative to the sea, but crucial to its future - and the future of surrounding areas, interconnected as they are. The Red Hill Bay rehabilitation also contains a promise to those who love the remote and strangely beautiful region.
"It's the first of many projects to come," said California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents the region, and who has made environmental justice a centerpiece of his work in the state legislature. "The beginning is here, and we're going to continue working on the Salton Sea... it's one of our priorities."
The Salton Sea's future has been fraught almost since its accidental creation in 1905, when the Colorado River breached a canal and for nearly a year and a half, floodwaters poured into the Salton sink, refilling an ancient seabed left behind by prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. Since then, the sea has persisted as California's largest lake at nearly 380 square miles, fed mostly by infrequent rains and agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley.
It's also often dismissed as California's most troubled body of water. Because the inland sea was recreated by mistake, it has often been treated as one; one of its nicknames is "The Accidental Sea." even though the sink has drained and refilled numerous times over thousands of years. Over the last few decades the Salton Sea has been drying out at a faster and faster pace. Once-bustling beach areas are now stuck in the middle of a drying and cracked playa with water shimmering, barely visible, far off on the horizon.
The parts of shoreline not designated as a wildlife refuge are testimonials to disrepair and economic decay, lined with trailers and empty reminders of more prosperous times, when the sea was a playground for the well-known and well-shod.
At Red Hill Bay, water from the nearby Alamo River will be diverted onto the dry lakebed to recreate habitat that was full of water just a few short years ago.
"Typically, at a national park, you manage these pristine things, that have not been manipulated," said David Smith, Joshua Tree National Park superintendent. "But the fact of the matter is, most of the California landscape has been manipulated. From the Central Valley we've lost most of the wetlands, so places like the Salton Sea -- it has become, over the last century, a crucial wetland community."
A multi-body mitigation agreement to replenish the Salton Sea, 2003's Quantification Settlement Agreement, included an agreement by the Imperial Irrigation District to provide extra water to maintain the sea. That obligation expires at the end of 2017. California's drought has exacerbated the problem. Water from the Colorado River that a few years ago would have replenished the sea is now getting diverted to other places. The arid air means the sea's water evaporates quickly, and so without a source of new water, the sea's water level is declining.
As the Salton Sea shrinks, its salinity has increased to levels twice as high as seawater - so high, in fact, that the only fish that can survive in it now are the hardy tilapia, and sometimes not even them. As the waterline retreats, it exposes fine playa dust, laden with arsenic and pesticides, to be blown into towns and cities by the desert winds. Already people in the Coachella Valley and Imperial County suffer from asthma and bronchitis at rates far higher than normal.
But the birds still come. The avian wildlife the Salton Sea supports is astonishing; more than 450 species of birds stop there to rest as they migrate through the multi-continental Pacific Flyway, making it one of the most biodiverse spots in North America. If the water were allowed to disappear entirely, it would create not only a humanitarian disaster for the region but an environmental and ecological one.
"Overall, in California, we've lost 95 percent of our wetlands, and so during the winter along the Pacific Flyway, shorebirds and waterfowl depend on those wetlands," said Mike Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California. The birds don't care whether the wetlands are naturally or artificially formed, he said - all they care about is whether there is water.
"Historically, in California, we had something like 20 to 40 million waterfowl, ducks and geese that would come through. Today we've probably got six to eight million. We lost Tulare Lake a long time ago, the Colorado River Delta is not as productive as it once was, and so the Salton Sea provides a replacement habitat."
Restoring the sea would be simple -- just add water -- but not easy. Every drop of water has become more dear than ever before across the southwestern United States, which makes restoration projects like Red Hill Bay's wetlands as expensive and difficult as they are crucial to the region.
The price tag for the fix would be steep, in the billions of dollars, an easy problem to ignore in a foundering and drought-ridden economy. But the cost of ignoring the Salton Sea's death would be far higher in environmental, human, and economic costs. The Salton Sea's restoration could not only save human and animal populations, but provide a new way of looking at sustainability -- one in which humanity plays a restorative role in nature as well as a protective one.
Want to learn more about the Salton Sea? Visit KCET's Salton Sea page for more featured articles, videos, and profiles.