Early test finished, more planned to save sea

February 05, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Efforts to save the Salton Sea by reducing its salt content through using snow-blowers are moving forward.

The Salton Sea Authority, an agency made up of Imperial Valley and Riverside County officials, has finished a month-long test on the effectiveness of the snow blowers in reducing salt levels. The authority plans to start a six-month test of the desalination system as early as May.

The ultimate goal is to implement a permanent program to reduce salt, but that will take congressional approval of a program that could cost could as much as $500 million.

Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, said this morning every test of the system brings the authority one step closer to a solution to the sea's problems.


Federal researchers have said the sea is a dying environment due in large part to a salt content that is 25 percent higher than the Pacific Ocean.

Over the past month four ground-based snow-blower devices were tested. The devices cause water to evaporate, which allows water to separate from the salt.

If the program is approved, salt would then be collected in a pond or in a landfill. A final decision on what to do with the salt has yet to be made. Kirk said a portion of the salt could be sold.

For the six-month test, settling ponds to collect salt and a tower-based evaporation system will be built, which will work much the same way as the snow blowers in separating salt from water.

He said it is difficult to say specifically when the six-month test will start, but he said it could start as early as May.

Kirk said it is difficult to say when congressional approval for a particular desalination project will come and when funding would be awarded to maintain the effort.

He did say there are a number of questions that will have to be addressed before any permanent effort can move forward.

One such question is how the proposed transfer of 200,000 acre-feet per year of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego will affect the sea.

Kirk said the concern is if the amount of water flowing into the sea is reduced by the transfer, it would increase the salt concentration. He said that could make the effort to cut salt content more costly.

In addition, as Mexico continues efforts to clean the New River on its side of the border, there is a chance that country could opt to reroute the river to meet its agricultural needs.

That would reduce the flow of water into the sea, thus creating higher salt concentration.

Kirk said the issue of total maximum daily loads, which are federal regulations for water quality, could affect the salt concentration. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is looking at more stringent TMDLs for such particles as silt in waterways.

In the Imperial Valley that could mean farmers would have to better control the flow of water off their farms and into local waterways. That could result in less water flowing into the sea.

Kirk said despite the questions, he thinks the sea can be saved. He said it just a matter of time and finding the funding sources to make the desalination effort come to fruition.

Federal officials have said the Salton Sea is an important body of water that should be saved.

In annual meetings, congressional leaders have said the federal government likely would not fund the salt-reduction efforts on its own. They have said the state would have to share in the effort.

Kirk has said it is important to note while the sea is an ailing environment, it continues to attract visitors who come to see the wildlife that depends on the sea.

The Salton Sea, the largest inland body of water in the state, is an important stop for migratory birds such as endangered brown pelicans.

Kirk has said he thinks the future of the sea is not to be the resort area it was the 1950s. He said a healthier sea would continue as a key tourist spot for those interested in studying wildlife.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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