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And I'm Audie Cornish. Time may be running out for California's largest lake. The storied Salton Sea in Southern California is shrinking fast and getting saltier. The state supreme court this year upheld a 2003 landmark water transfer agreement. That deal diverts Colorado River water from farmland near the Salton Sea to urban areas along the coast. And some contend those transfers are hastening the demise of the sea and the ecosystem around it.
Gloria Hillard has our story.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: We're a stone's throw from Salton Sea's receding shoreline. Seventy-five-year-old Ed Angel peeks out from under a dusty seaman's cap and points to a ragged patch of desert with dying palm trees.
ED ANGEL: That's where the yacht club used to be, right over there. They had a hotel there, a two-story hotel.
HILLARD: Angel, Salton City's honorary mayor, says, in the '70s, the place was packed with tourists who came here for the restaurants, waterskiing and good fishing. Now, dead fish gently bob along the shore. Under the desert sun, the smell is overpowering. Tilapia, the only remaining fish in the lake, struggles to survive in water saltier than the ocean.
Residents here have watched their home values plummet. Many have moved away.
AL KALIN: These are sugar beets right in front of us here.
HILLARD: At the southern edge of the Salton Sea, second generation farmer Al Kalin works 2,000 acres of sugar beets, alfalfa, wheat and carrots. He says the irrigation water from Imperial Valley farm fields has been replenishing the sea for decades.
KALIN: The crystal clear water coming out of the ground, that's the tile drainage water out of this field. That makes up about 25 percent of all the water that goes to the sea.
HILLARD: The salt water lake fed by ag water is also one of the last remaining waterways in Southern California for migratory birds.
KALIN: Oh, that's a Marsh Hawk. The real name's the Northern Harrier.
HILLARD: On Kalin's dashboard is a well-worn bird guidebook.
KALIN: We've found over 400 species of birds here in the Imperial Valley. That's more than anywhere else in the United States.
HILLARD: Like many Imperial Valley farmers, the 63-year-old Kalin is not that happy about the water transfer agreement that sends billions of gallons of Colorado River water to the cities of San Diego County.
HALLA RAZAK: It's really a win-win for both of the counties.
HILLARD: Halla Razak, of the San Diego County Water Authority, says San Diego gets water and the Imperial Irrigation District gets the funds to implement water conservation projects. She also disputes that the water transfer has contributed to the decline of the Salton Sea.
RAZAK: We have been depositing water in the Salton Sea and absolutely negating any kind of impacts that the transfers have had on the sea.
HILLARD: This is accomplished, in part, Razak says, through a voluntary fallowing program, which pays farmers to not plant crops. Some of that conserved water goes to San Diego and some goes to the Salton Sea, but the delivery of water will stop in 2018. That was when the state was supposed to have a restoration plant underway for the Salton, but that hasn't happened.
So now, the San Diego County Water Authority, along with the Imperial Irrigation District, is seeking to stop the delivery of water four years early. Imperial Irrigation District's Bruce Wilcox says, with the money saved, they can build habitat for birds and other wildlife.
BRUCE WILCOX: It's a series of shallow ponds. They're 50 to 100 acres in size, maybe slightly bigger. They're six-foot deep at the deepest and they're designed to sustain a fish population.
HILLARD: In the meantime, the Salton Sea continues to decline. Michael Cohen, a senior research associate for the Pacific Institute, says the sea could reach its tipping point in just a matter of years. First, the fish will disappear.
MICHAEL COHEN: Many of the birds that depend on those fish will either go elsewhere or simply die off entirely and there could be a major dust storm.
KALIN: It creates a white powder.
HILLARD: Farmer Al Kalin is talking about playa, the soil that has been exposed from the sea drying up. It has become a toxic mix of metal, salt and ag chemicals and when the wind blows...
KALIN: It was very much like tear gas, this white dust that happens, that we have. I mean, it really - it burns your eyes. It burns your nose, your throat. You get a sore throat. Bad stuff. And people just don't have an inkling, you know, what it's like.
HILLARD: It's lunchtime at Johnson's Landing in Salton City. From the outdoor patio, there's just sand where the boat launch used to be, but they'll still clean your fresh-caught tilapia. Residents Jenny Sifton and Rose Marie Bachman say what's going to happen to the Salton Sea is a daily conversation here.
JENNY SIFTON: If that dries up, people can't survive out here.
ROSE MARIE BACHMAN: I look at it and I visualize what it could be. It's just the most beautiful place and I feel like I have the best kept secret in the world.
HILLARD: We're at sunset, blue herons and pelicans fly just inches above the largest lake in California. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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