Bird species once abundant around the Salton Sea are rapidly deserting the location as waters recede and salinity rises, according to a report released Thursday by Audubon California.
“For a community that once held annual Pelican Days birding festivals, the decline of these great birds is certainly disheartening,” said Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation. “At its peak, the Salton Sea hosted a broad diversity of birds, and any habitat restoration that takes place here should serve that diversity.”
According to the report, the most pronounced desertion has involved the American White Pelican, whose numbers reached about 20,000 in 2008, but now hover below 100.
“This decline is largely the result of the Sea’s increased salinity, which is killing off the tilapia upon which the birds feed,” the report stated.
Other species migrating away from the area include the Eared Grebe and Double-crested Cormorant, Audubon California said.
More than 5,000 nesting pairs of cormorants once were identified around the Salton Sea, but a survey taken in December found little evidence of the birds’ presence, according to the report.
During the same survey, the Eared Grebe population was estimated to have plunged 63 percent in the current decade.
Conversely, some shorebirds’ numbers are on the rise, including the Ruddy Duck, Western Sandpiper and various waterfowl, Audubon California said.
According to the nonprofit, the birds are likely drawn by the surge in insects that has occurred as water levels drop, exposing more shore — and feeding grounds.
However, the dying Sea leaves more birds in fewer habitable pockets, creating conditions that are ripe for pestilence, as happened in January, when over 7,000 Ruddy Ducks contracted and perished from avian cholera, Jones said.
“Some birds will diminish and other birds will prosper — but the overall number of birds at the Sea is shrinking,” she said. “It is my hope that 10 years from now, people can visit the Salton Sea and watch large formations of these magnificent birds flying along the shoreline and dropping down onto the water to feed on the fish below its surface.”
Sorting out what strategies to employ for preservation of the 360- square-mile Salton Sea has been a two-decade process lacking results, according to observers.
Water reclamation by local agencies and Mexico, plus the loss of Colorado River supplies that originally fed the Salton Sea, have caused water levels to drop precipitously.
For 15 years, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District replenished some of the water drawn out of the Sea in order to limit lakebed exposure, but that mitigation effort ended on Jan. 1, 2018, leaving the future ecology of the area in doubt.
Riverside County officials have pointed out that $25 million from Proposition 50 in 2006 was expended on research but no game plan for saving the Sea. Similarly, $400 million from Proposition 84 in 2014 was earmarked for projects to mitigate environmental damage from the shrinking body of water, but there was nothing proactive done.
Proposition 66, the $4 billion water bond measure approved by voters last June, set aside $200 million for Sea projects. If the state continues to tarry without applying funds to a fix, evaporation will continue, exposing more lakebed and raising public health risks, according to the county.
The Board of Supervisors last fall tentatively approved a plan to create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District that would provide revenue to begin restoration of the north end of the Sea, which extends into Riverside County, with the remaining seabed in Imperial County. The plan would require taxing property owners in the area, requiring voter approval.