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Cabazons sue over Salton Sea

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LOS ANGELES ? On Sept. 4, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton for failure to protect the Salton Sea.

"The Salton Sea is our heritage," says John A. James, the Cabazon tribal chairman.

At issue is the proposed diversion of water from the Parker dam on the Colorado River that would ultimately take over 300,000-acre feet and transfer it to San Diego for residential and commercial water use.

The Cabazons and their environmental group allies are claiming that this diversion would ultimately pinch off enough water that is used to recharge the accidentally created sea.

The Salton Sea was formed by a breach in an irrigation canal in 1909 that flooded an area that was on average 40 miles long and 13 miles wide.

After flooding was stemmed, the Salton Sea, as it came to be known, became a popular tourist destination and was recharged by the annual agricultural runoff from nearby farming operations.

Greg Cervantes, the public information officer for Cabazon, says that these agricultural run-offs have resulted in accumulated pesticides that will be exposed once the water begins to recede. This, says Cervantes, will create health problems for people living near the shore, including the Cabazons and the neighboring Torres-Martinez tribe, who recently won millions of dollars in a federal lawsuit for land they lost to the Salton Sea.

The problem stems from a federal order to the state of California to reduce usage of the Colorado River water from 5.2 million cubic acres to its allotted 4.4 million cubic acres, after Arizona and other states that use the Colorado River sued in the United States Supreme Court.

In order to comply with the federal order water that ultimately goes to the Salton Sea is being diverted at the Parker Dam siphoning off water that traditionally has recharged the Salton Sea.

Perhaps the central issue to the Cabazons and the environmental groups is the biological importance of the area. Over the years the area1s ecosystem has become increasingly significant due to sprawling developments that have paved over several other seasonal wetlands in Southern California.

Thus the Salton Sea is now a vital component of the "Pacific Flyway" for seasonally migrating waterfowl and other birds, some of which come from as far away as Canada and Alaska.

"Over 400 bird species use the Salton Sea, making it one of the greatest spots for aviary diversity in the Western Hemisphere. All of this would be destroyed so that some rich people in San Diego can become even richer," says Daniel Patterson, an ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the parties in the suit.

Patterson also points out that many fish species, native to the arid southwest, have found a refuge in the Salton Sea and many birds have become dependent upon them for survival. When the water recedes salinity levels are increased, thus ultimately killing the fish which the migrating birds depend upon for survival.

In 1998 the United States Congress ordered the Department of Interior to come up with a solution, when it passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act, in the wake of the death of author Congressman Sonny Bono, R-Calif.

The congressional act mandated that the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation come up with a comprehensive plan by 2000 to stabilize the ecosystem in and immediately surrounding the Salton Sea.

"They didn't come up with anything, essentially (former Secretary of the Interior Bruce) Babbitt listed some of the problems with water diversion to San Diego but said nothing about the ecosystem and possible strategies for mitigation," said Cervantes.

Mitigation seems to be a problem in itself and Cervantes and representatives for the environmental groups say that they are frustrated by the Department of Interior1s lack of a recommendation on this point has forced them to sue.

"We just want the federal government to tell us what should be done to save the Salton Sea," says Eldon Hughes, the chairman of the California and Nevada Desert Committee of the Sierra Club.

Cervantes and Hughes, both say that the Imperial Valley Irrigation District (IID), who would handle the water transfer, and the city of San Diego are trying to settle the problem by paying out $80 million thus making themselves no longer be liable for the area.

Calls to the Interior Department were not returned by press time. Calls to the IDD were not returned due to problems with their phone system.

However, the Bureau of Reclamation issued a statement that ran as a news brief in the Los Angeles Times, that called the lawsuit "meritless." The brief went on to say that the 1998 Reclamation Act only called for possible remedies but does not require the federal government to "fix the sea," and that the recommendations were already taken care of during the Clinton administration, a reference to the Babbitt report.

Eldon said the Sierra Club is calling for mitigation in the form of allowing certain farm fields that employ water intensive crops such as cotton to go fallow so the extra water could be used to recharge the sea.

The Cabazon do not have a specific solution Cervantes said; he wants to see what Interior proposes before deciding on a course of action.