Efforts to save the Salton Sea, one of North America's most important yet endangered habitats, are stifled as California races a federal deadline to reduce its use of Colorado River water.
Warnings about the Salton Sea's demise are nothing new, but its supporters increasingly are worried about the prospects of restoring the state's largest inland body of water.
"I don't know where we're going to get the water" to save the sea, said Rep. Mary Bono of Palm Springs. "I think this year is really crunch time ... and it's time for people to work harder than they ever worked on the sea."
The sea, about one-fifth the size of the Great Salt Lake and 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, is a highly productive fishery and one of the most crucial stops for migratory birds in North America. If it were allowed to shrivel, scientists also fear windstorms laden with its exposed soil could create a health threat.
Efforts to save it, however, are caught in the middle of California's highly volatile water politics – competing against urban, agricultural and environmental water needs.
Much of the water that currently feeds the sea, formed by a canal breach in 1905, is bound for urban areas to help end the state's overuse of the Colorado River. It is sustained primarily by farm runoff, but that is not enough to prevent the sea's salinity from rising.
Many scientists contend the salinity levels will kill off fish within a few decades. For now, the sea still brims with fish – mostly corvina, croaker and tilapia – although periodic algal blooms and fish kills have raised concerns about the sea's health.
The fish and other marine creatures have made the sea "virtually an international airport for migratory birds," said Tim Krantz, a University of Redlands environmental studies professor.
More than 400 bird species have been seen around the sea, which sometimes attracts millions of birds a day. It has played host to 90 percent of the world's population of eared grebes at once and more than half of its American white pelicans.
The sea is a major stopover along the Pacific flyway, a path for migratory birds extending from Alaska to the tropics. Records from banded birds found that avian visitors to the sea have ended up not only all over North America, but also in South America, Russia and Hawaii.
Wildlife is particularly dependent on the sea because development has destroyed roughly 95 percent of California's wetlands – a higher percentage than any other state.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Salton Sea Authority – an entity formed by local governments in 1993 – have long studied ways to control salinity. But efforts would need to be greatly expanded if the Imperial Irrigation District implements plans to sell up to 97 billion gallons of water a year to water agencies in San Diego and the Coachella Valley, which includes Palm Springs.
The proposed transfers would cause the sea's elevation to plummet 23 feet – close to half of its 51-foot current maximum depth. That would shrink bird habitat, cause the sea's salinity to rise more quickly, and expose thousands of acres of shoreline.
Those losses will merely hasten the inevitable, said Jim Taylor, assistant general counsel for the San Diego County Water Authority.
"The sea is a hard question," he says. "We have a site that is already declining. The sea will be too salty for fish in the next 20 years or so."
The transfers are needed to diversify San Diego's water supply and to meet the terms of a seven-state agreement meant to end decades of disputes over Colorado River water.
The other Colorado River states have agreed to give California 15 years to reduce its use of river water from about 5.2 million acre-feet per year to its legally allotted 4.4 million acre-feet.
But if California fails to put adequate conservation measures into place by year's end, the deal could evaporate and California might be forced to quickly slash its water use.