How thirsty cities could put salt on your fruit

As a lifelong Imperial Valley farmer, Linden Anderson knows well the dusty havoc a desert windstorm can dump on his crops. Gusts of dirt and sand so thick they halt traffic can instantly coat his 2,000 acres of mango trees in a layer of grit.

Now, he and other produce farmers here are concerned that the latest round of California's water wars will add an unsavory dose of salt to the wind whipping over their crops. If a pending proposal to divert 65 billion gallons of the Imperial Valley's irrigation water annually to San Diego goes through – the largest transfer of water from agricultural to municipal use in US history – the water line of the nearby Salton Sea would be lowered, allowing the wind to scour the exposed sea bed.

California's largest lake – at 376 square miles, bigger than both Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake in the north – is 30 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. But it is also one of the most productive fisheries in the world, a mecca of sports enthusiasts, and one of the last wetlands refuges for millions of migrating birds on the Pacific flyway from Canada to South America.

Located at the southernmost edge of California, the Salton Sea is also the geographic center of the latest Western water war. After years of taking more than its legal limit from the Colorado River, California is under pressure from neighboring states to reduce its long-term reliance on the river. Under state and federal agreements, California can continue to receive surplus water if it starts water conservation and diversion programs. The problem: The water that would be diverted from the Imperial Valley – about 300,000 acre-feet, or enough to serve 560,000 urban families annually – is crucial to the Salton Sea's already fragile health. Environmentalists and farmers fear the proposed transfer would seriously damage that health – perhaps irreparably. Water quality is already in decline from fertilizer-laden runoff from area farms. And if the fresh water that helps replenish and stabilize the Salton Sea is diverted to San Diego, salinity would increase, endangering both fish and birds. The diversion would also shrink the lake, exposing thousands of acres of salt- and chemical-laced sea-bottom.

"If the sea shrinks and the winds blow, you're going to get salt and toxic chemicals not just on my fruit and farm but all over the place for miles," says Mr. Anderson, of HMS Agricultural Corporation, which runs several farms in the region.

Conservative estimates say the sea would drop five feet, exposing a quarter- to half-mile wide ring of sea bed. Liberal estimates say the ring could be as wide as two miles – around the whole 35-mile-long by 15-mile-wide sea.

Water diversion supporters say the Salton Sea is a freak of nature to begin with, and ought to be allowed to die. The lake occupies a what was a dry prehistoric lake bed. In 1905, massive flooding caused the Colorado River to break through an irrigation canal and flow freely into the basin for 18 months. Because the area is below sea level, the captured water remained, and has since been supplemented by the flows of three other rivers – two of which serve as irrigation runoff from thousands of farms, a third – the New River – flows in from Mexico and is heavily polluted.

The strange history has led to the improbable: a beautiful, if somewhat smelly, body of water that supports huge populations of fish and migratory birds. The agricultural runoffs carry an amalgam of rich nutrients as well as some pesticide and an abundance of salt.

Because of all of this, the issue of water diversion is heightened. Federal and state endangered-species laws require agencies involved to mitigate negative impacts of such a water sale. And the sea bed toxicity raises concern that possible poison dust storms could violate the federal Clean Air Act.

"The exposure of this lake bed to prevailing winds here would cause more air pollution, threatening both crops and human life," says David Hogan, a researcher for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Besides San Diego, which badly needs the water for its expanding population, those lobbying for the diversion include Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. For several years, they've allowed California to take more than its allotment of Colorado River water. But a legal deadline of Dec. 31 this year looms, after which such states may sue California to cut back to its legal limit.

"There is a lot at stake here, as California is pressured to get back under its legal entitlement," says Bob Campbell, a specialist with the San Diego County Water Authority. The other states with legal claims on Colorado River water have faced three dry years, and dropping reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. US Interior Secretary Gale Norton has already threatened to cut California's allocation by 800,000 acre-feet – enough to supply 1.5 million households for a year.

The Imperial Valley to San Diego transfer has been in the offing for several years. Deliveries would start to the San Diego area next summer, costing the water district there $64 million per year. Some farmers have fallowed their land in order to sell their lucrative water rights, a trend some worry could irreversibly damage agriculture in the region that produces a huge share of the nation's winter fruits and vegetables.

"We're afraid that the water will flow towards where the votes are, and there are more people in San Diego than here," says Al Kalin, a longtime Imperial Valley farmer. "The economy here certainly seems to take second place to population growth there."

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