NOEL KING, HOST:
The biggest lake in California was once a famed desert oasis. But now the Salton Sea is shrinking. And that's partly because of evaporation. But also, its water is being redirected elsewhere thanks to a controversial deal. And that means the lake may soon be dry. John Nielsen has the story.
JOHN NIELSEN, BYLINE: In the 1950s and the 1960s, tourists swarmed the shores of California's Salton Sea, which is actually a 350-square-mile lake in the southeastern corner of the state. There were nine marinas then. There were fancy restaurants, and there were stars like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here is truly a miracle in the desert, a whole new outlet for the crowd of millions in big cities, a Palm Springs with water...
NIELSEN: Unfortunately, since the late 1970s, the place once called the Desert Riviera has been battered by floods, baked by drought and poisoned by agricultural pollutants. Fish killed by algae blooms line some of the beaches. Abandoned resorts look like the sets of zombie movies. But the biggest blow of all could be the one that hits as the rivers that now sustain the Salton Sea shrink to a trickle. That's thanks to a farm-to-city water transfer deal that directs the water in those rivers to booming urban areas near San Diego.
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NIELSEN: Critics say this deal could prove disastrous for hundreds of species of migratory birds that roost and feed in places like the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.
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NIELSEN: Al Kalin is a local farmer.
AL KALIN: There aren't as many as there used to be. The great blue herons are - they're pretty much - used to be where you could see a hundred great blue herons along the shore in one spot. Anymore - you're lucky to see one or two.
NIELSEN: Others have been warning of an air pollution crisis, arguing that dust clouds from the shrinking sea pose a threat to people living all over the southeastern part of California.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You guys can make a line over here, so I can get your email and your name.
NIELSEN: Concerned citizens who've heard those warnings recently filled a meeting room in the headquarters of Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit public health group in the desert town of Brawley. Caroline Garcia brought along her children.
CAROLINE GARCIA: This is Damien Garcia. He has asthma and allergies. And then Desmond Garcia also has asthma but without allergies.
NIELSEN: Towns like Brawley already have some of the highest asthma rates and worst air pollution problems in the country. Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico says the salt and sea dust storms will make those problems worse, noting that traces of everything from DDT to arsenic have been detected in the dried-out lakebeds.
LUIS OLMEDO: It's like we're going to a Class 1 landfill - a toxic landfill - to expose it and just let the wind carry it to our community. That's really what's happening.
NIELSEN: In August, after years of trying, California lawmakers unveiled a $383 million plan to minimize the impact of the water transfer deal. The plan would encircle what's left of the Salton Sea with thousands of acres worth of managed wetlands and freshwater fish ponds.
BRUCE WILCOX: We like to say that we're creating a smaller but sustainable lake or Salton Sea.
NIELSEN: Bruce Wilcox is the state official charged with implementing the mitigation plan, which has not yet been fully funded. If the funding does come through, Wilcox thinks it should be enough to keep the dust down and protect the birds. Wilcox says he does know people who dream of a return to the glory days of the Desert Riviera. But he says the glory days are gone.
For NPR News, I'm John Nielsen, Brawley, Calif.
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