Salton Sea: Fish and the birds that fed on them wiped out this winter
Tim Bradley crunched across a broad beach made of dead barnacles and fish bones. He bent down and stirred green slime, tinged with brown foam at the western edge of the vast lake unfurled before him. It was a sign for the longtime biologist that the much-maligned Salton Sea is alive.
“It’s just algae and bacteria and scum and so forth, but it’s an incredible thing, because this could be a very productive site,” he said. “The water is so full of nutrients. See those bubbles there? The only question is, what’s going to take advantage of that?”
Nearby, a lone American avocet skittered along the muck, poking for insects. Two years ago, “there were thousands of birds here,” said Bradley, a UC Irvine biologist and member of the state’s Salton Sea science advisory committee.
He and other wildlife experts who monitor California’s largest lake try to see progress where they can. A year after Colorado River imports were diverted to urban areas from farms draining into the lake, dire predictions about what would occur are coming to pass. A long-predicted, enormous ecological transition is occurring this winter. But the 350-square-mile water body is not dead yet. If agencies and policymakers can finally resolve their differences, researchers and advocates say, portions of what’s being lost could still return. But it needs to happen quickly.
This year, the tilapia are all but gone, and so are millions of migratory birds that fed on them. There are no more stinking piles of dead fish piled high, only an ever-widening shoreline and dried up canals and harbors where boat docks that once floated on water now hang mid-air. The lake and its wildlife have also been left high and dry by 15 years of broken promises on restoration projects, critics say.
Reached on Friday afternoon, newly appointed California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said he’d heard about the massive loss of birds this winter, and rising lake dust that is bad for people’s lungs. He vowed to act swiftly to broker solutions.
“What’s occurring at the Salton Sea right now is an ecological crisis and a public health crisis,” said Crowfoot. “This is a top priority for the resources agency … I’m really excited in my new role to roll up my sleeves and understand what the variables are that are holding us back on these projects. Broadly speaking, first of all, we all have to work together with the urgency that this crisis demands. Period.”
Crowfoot pressed hard to bring different sides together on the Salton Sea in his previous post as head of the Water Foundation, and is keenly aware of the delays and what’s at stake.
“What I always say to people not familiar with the Salton Sea is that it’s a critical stop on the Pacific Flyway, the world’s largest annual migration of life. Given the changes to other wetlands, it’s absolutely critical to a number of bird species.”
As water levels drop and the lake recedes into an ever saltier concentrate, there is still life. Ducks and other shorebirds are beginning to arrive in what wetlands there are. Their existence is tenuous – almost one percent of North America’s entire ruddy duck population was wiped out in a single avian cholera outbreak there last month, said Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation with Audubon California.
Federal wildlife staff at the lake are witnessing the massive change daily.
“With the declining sea, we’ve hit a threshold. The tilapia are pretty much wiped out, and that affects the fish-eating birds: the crested cormorants, the brown pelicans, the white pelicans,” said Chris Schoeneman, manager of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea national wildlife refuge at the southern end. “The brown pelican just came of the Endangered Species list recently, so they’re vulnerable … We used to get eared grebes by the millions here. We’ve seen a few hundred coming through this year and they’re starving.”
Jones, with Audubon California, said her organization has seen the same thing at 14 monitoring points around the lake in the past two years.
“I couldn’t believe the drop in numbers that our data show. We have definitely seen a massive reduction in fish-eating birds,” said Jones. “You just sort of knew it would happen (with the cut-off of imported water) but the drop-off is dramatic, and statistically significant.”
No one knows exactly where the populations are going instead, she said, though studies are underway. Bradley said habitat for migratory birds has been reduced to a proverbial “postage stamp” by development. Both say that with increased stress and less food and nesting sites, there will be less successful breeding, reducing populations of already threatened birds.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and new life is filling in already.
“The common perception of the Salton Sea seems to be that it’s a dead, dying stinky place, but we’ve seen incredible numbers of shorebirds arrive this winter,” said Jones.
“We’ve got 40,000 ruddy ducks here this year,” agreed Schoeneman. “We haven’t seen that many of them in a long time.”
Without formal studies, the biologists surmise that the loss of insect-eating fish led to an explosion of water boatmen, small black bugs despised by many suburban car and pool owners, but which ducks, shovelers and other waterfowl dine on. But even here, there’s already a worrisome loss.
After Christmas, Schoeneman began hearing reports from hunters that birds were dying in large numbers, and fast. Though California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife officials said 1,500 birds died, he knows first hand that it was far more. Through January, he and an assistant spent days shoveling almost 7,000 dead birds from the lake edge into an incinerator, unpaid because the federal shutdown was occurring. Almost all were ruddy ducks.
State wildlife officials said the cause was avian cholera. Jones said the disease breaks out in spots where birds are in tight quarters, she said about this incident, “it’s not normal. Avian cholera happens in California in general when birds get crowded into wetlands when there’s less water available. It’s happened in the Central Valley with habitat loss, and now it’s happening here.”
The disease spreads rapidly when birds pressed into small areas drink water or eat food contaminated with cholera bacteria in feces, for instance. She said the loss of 7,000 ducks in one spot is “alarming” because there are only 100,000 left in North America.
“We don’t need to lose anything else right now,” she said.
For more than a century, the vast inland lake was a prime stopping place for migratory birds on the long journey from the Arctic, Canada and Alaska to Baja, Mexico and back again. What’s most frustrating to the scientists is they know portions of the rarer species could be brought back.
At the national refuge this month, hundreds of snow geese are wintered down in nutritious ryegrass and wheat that staff have grown for them. The wildlife refuge has been feeding birds hunted nearly to extinction and crowded out by development elsewhere since 1930.
“That’s what we do day in and day out, we manage habitat. So we’ve seen it work. We know it can be done because it’s being done right here,” said Schoeneman. “It’s extremely gratifying. You find out what the birds’ needs are. They devour it.”
But the refuge is only 2,000 acres. There were supposed to be thousands of acres of marsh and pond projects ready by the time the water imports stopped in January 2018. Recognizing the devastating toll that cutting off the water could cause, a judge gave all the parties 15 years to act. Originally $9 billion worth of ideas were floated to bisect the lake, or build a perimeter or otherwise restore it. Those plans, like the lake, have contracted over time.
There’s now a ten-year state plan to build 30,000 acres of species conservation habitat – still small compared to the huge lake.
But agreements between the powerful Imperial Irrigation District and state agencies have still not been finalized. A state staffer said IID needed to allow access across its land. An IID spokesman said the project was awaiting $2 million in state funds. The debate mirrors the logjam between the two sides over all the projects. The district wants to persuade state officials to agree to easements for access across IID lands that will guarantee the district will assume no liability for endangered species that might find their way onto adjoining farmland or irrigation land. They also don’t want to be responsible for operating and maintaining wildlife restoration sites. California voters passed a water bond that allocates more than $200 million for the Salton Sea, but those funds may only be available for construction, not maintenance.
“It just goes around and around … Both sides are pointing fingers, and I understand both points of view,” said Bradley.
Some advocates say if Gov. Gavin Newsom and Crowfoot intercede, the yearslong cycle could finally end. More funding is also needed, they say. IID has linked a request for $200 million in federal Farm Bill funding to its approval of a Colorado River drought contingency plan.
Crowfoot said he plans to talk with IID officials and key state officials very soon. Until his appointment by Newsom, he headed the Water Foundation, and pushed hard to resolve the differences between all sides regarding the Salton Sea. His organization even offered to pay for professional mediators to break the impasse.
With the state bond funds in place and Crowfoot recognizing the urgency, some are hopeful.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the year something gets done,” said Michael Cohen with the Pacific Policy Institute.
Bradley and some others have a tougher time seeing a bright future. They’ve seen too many agreements break down, too many delays for no good reason.
On a recent winter afternoon, he stopped by the Red Hill project site, where a large sign declared that a habitat restoration project is coming. “Completion Date 2016” it proclaimed.
“Eight years ago this was all water,” says Bradley, waving his hand across the salt-caked moonscape.
If anything, he takes hope from the lake itself. He stopped at another key spot – the former North Shore Yacht Club, now a community center. The entrance to the harbor out front, once a channel for big pleasure boats for vacationers, is now a widening sand bar. Once again, Bradley was shocked by the rapid rate of change. And once again, he headed to the shore, looking for something.
“I’m rooting for the briny shrimp,” he said.
The tiny crustaceans saved Mono Lake from becoming a barren water body, Bradley said, and the same could happen here. He was so convinced of their importance that he urged state officials to import them to the Salton Sea two years ago. The request was denied.
“These are the same people who throw trout from helicopters to stock fishing lakes,” he said, exasperated.
Although Audubon backed the proposal, Jones says she’d rather the briny shrimp are imported to the lake naturally, on the backs or legs of birds flying in from Owens Lake or Mono Lake, for instance.
“Whatever the means, it would be just fantastic if they came,” said Bradley. “It would bring back birds like you wouldn’t believe. They’d be a different type of birds, but that’s okay.”