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Column: Saga of the Salton Sea

The Southern California inland sea between the Coachella and Imperial valleys did not even exist until 1905 when the Colorado River burst through irrigation canal control structures near Yuma, Ariz. It took two years to fill the breach. Left behind was a 40 x 13 mile lake covering 400 square miles. It was named the Salton Sea.

People expected the lake to dry up by the 1920s, and some today wishes it had. It has evolved from a lake with great potential into a nightmare that will not go away.

In World War II it supported a commercial millet fishery after German submarines made ocean fishing hazardous. A B-29 squadron commanded by Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets used the lake to drop dummies of a new bomb. On Aug. 6, 1945 it was Tibbets and his crew in the Enola Gay that dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima.

It the early 1920s the federal government designated the Salton Sea as a permanent drainage reservoir. With that, the Imperial and Coachella valleys flourished as agricultural meccas.

Unfortunately, that drainage designation and the relentless evaporation from the desert sun has made the Salton Sea saltier than the ocean; a death trap for migratory waterfowl where only a few salt hardy fish species can survive.

It is now caught in the most ludicrous political tug-of-war imaginable. The latest salvo in the Save the Salton Sea fiasco has come from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein who is demanding Imperial Valley farmers fallow farmland to save the sea.

Imperial Irrigation District (IID) wants to sell 200,000-acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for up to 75 years. To get that water San Diego would finance conservation measures to save that water within IID. Part would mean less drain water flowing into the Salton Sea.

Anywhere else in California, reducing agricultural drainage would be applauded. But not when it comes to the Salton Sea.

The save-the-sea crowd wants farmers to continue water in-flow into the sea and have won the support of Feinstein.

According to Michael Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, the politicians and environmentalists want IID to fallow ground so water will continue flowing flow into the lake. According to Wade, Feinstein said there is a "serious risk" that the Department of Interior may suspend an agreement which allows California to take more than its share of Colorado River by the next 15 years unless IID agrees to fallow farmland. As Wade points out, farmers don’t need that surplus water. Urban California does.

What the Salton Sea savers want is for San Diego and other urban users to pressure IID to continue water flowing into the Salton Sea by fallowing farmland.

The absurdity of that defies all logic. What is known today as the Salton Sea dates back to 10,000 B.C. It has been filled and gone dry many times since then without political intervention. It doesn’t need any now.

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