Salton Sea “international avian airport” for migratory birds threatened by proposed water transfer

provided by National Wildlife Federation

s the world celebrates International Migratory Bird Day on Saturday, May 11, the Salton Sea – one of the nation's most important resources for migratory birds – is under threat by a proposed water transfer between Imperial and San Diego counties.

    International Migratory Bird Day celebrates the incredible journeys of migratory birds between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central, and South America.

    The Salton Sea, a 367-square-mile lake in Imperial County, California, supports millions of birds during their annual migration up and down the Pacific Flyway. In fact, the Sea supports over 400 different bird species – approximately two-thirds of all bird species in the continental United States – and is considered one of the most important stopover points for migrating birds in the Western United States.

    The Sea – and therefore the fish and bird species which live there – is imminently threatened by rising salinity, excessive nutrient runoff from agriculture, and the proposed transfer of up to 300,000 acre feet of water a year from the Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego County Water Authority and the Coachella Valley Water District.

    “With the loss of over 90% of wetlands throughout California, the Salton Sea has become a critical stopover point and refueling ground for millions of migrating birds from Mexico, Central America and South America,” said Kim Delfino, director of the California Office of Defenders of Wildlife.

    “For many species, the Sea's continued existence and viability is a matter of life or death,” said David Younkman, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Western Regional Office. “The Sea today supports about 45% of the entire US population of the threatened Yuma clapper rail, 80% of the world's population of American white pelicans, 90% of the continental population of the eared grebe, and the Sea is the only North American inland breeding site for the endangered brown pelican.”

    Many birds found in the United States are migratory and actually spend less than half of their lives here. As the weather warms, migratory birds fly north and raise young on the plentiful supplies of insects that are abundant only during the long warm days of our late spring and summer. At the end of the breeding season, usually in late summer or fall, they move south again, most of them following only their instincts to reach the traditional winter home of their species.

    The spring migration, however, is critical for most migrating birds. For each species there is a specific, optimal time when the birds need to arrive in their breeding areas. “Stopover points such as the Salton Sea are critical 'stepping stones' for migrating birds,” said Karen Douglas, natural resources director for the Planning and Conservation League, “and the Salton Sea has become one of the most important stepping stones for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.”

    “Without viable habitat where these birds can find shelter and find plentiful food, migrating birds will not reach their mating and breeding grounds, thereby imperiling their species,” said Dan Taylor of the National Audubon Society.

    The Salton Sea is renowned among birdwatchers and ornithologists for its unusual assortment of subtropical species, such as frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, yellow-footed gulls, and wood storks. The Sea's shoreline habitats also support hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds of 44 different species.

    Among the more immediate concerns for the Salton Sea is its rising salinity. If continued unchecked, the increasing salinity levels will ultimately make the Sea unable to support its vibrant fishery and, therefore, fish-eating birds. Without a plentiful food supply at the Salton Sea, many species such as black skimmers may not be able to make their return migrations across the desert.

    The proposed water transfer is part of the California 4.4 Plan, the mandatory reduction of California's usage of Colorado River water to its legal allotment of 4.4 million-acre-feet per year. Presently, the proposed water transfer may result in reductions of inflow by as much as 300,000 acre-feet of water annually. Modeling by the Salton Sea Database Program at the University of Redlands, using US Bureau of Reclamation bathymetric data and inflow data from the Imperial Irrigation District, suggest that the Sea's level would be lowered by as much as 26 feet, exposing up to 120 square miles of lake bottom.

    In addition to the ecological disaster that would likely result, the consequences of the current proposed transfer could have dire impacts on the regional economy and create conditions similar to the Owens Valley air quality disaster. The Owens Lake bottom, exposed when Los Angeles diverted the Owens River in the early part of the last century, subsequently resulted in severe and toxic dust storms which caused asthma attacks, aggravated bronchitis, and reduced the ability of residents to fight infections.

    The Defenders of Wildlife, Endangered Habitats League, National Wildlife Federation, and Planning and Conservation League, along with other conservation and community organizations, are working together to ensure that any transfer of water from the Imperial Valley will be conducted in full compliance of state and federal environmental laws, and fully analyzes direct, indirect and cumulative impacts to the Salton Sea.

    These groups believe that the Salton Sea ecosystem must continue to support its incredible diversity of bird species and its world-class sport fishery, while maintaining its exceptional recreational opportunities, including birding, hunting and fishing. To that effect, the coalition maintains that any transfer of water must include full mitigation of impacts to the Sea's bird and fishery resources and must not degrade the air quality in the Salton Sea region or undermine efforts to eventually restore the Salton Sea.

    Lastly, the coalition believes that any transfer of water must mitigate negative impacts to the natural environment of the areas that are to receive the water, including growth-inducing impacts in San Diego. San Diego County is considered a hotspot of biological diversity and contains more threatened and endangered species than any other county in the continental United States.

    International Migratory Bird Day takes place on the second Saturday in May each year, encourages bird conservation and increases awareness of birds through hikes, bird watching, information about birds and migration, public events, and a variety of other education programs. For more information, visit