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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SONNY BONO-SALTON SEA NWR: A Step Toward Saving the Salton Sea

Region 8, February 4, 2016
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge staff conducting a survey.
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge staff conducting a survey. - Photo Credit: n/a
A landscape view of the Salton Sea.
A landscape view of the Salton Sea. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Christian Shoneman and Jane Hendron

From the air it glistens and shimmers. The blue waters beckon. Upwards of 100,000 birds may visit the Salton Sea on any given day, as they make their migratory journey along the Pacific Flyway.


The Salton Sea was created by a breech in a dike along the Colorado River that poured water into the Salton Sink in the early 1900s. For decades the Sea continued to receive sufficient quantities of water from irrigation runoff to sustain it. This lake in the desert became a favorite getaway for Hollywood stars, and the Sea was populated with corvina, croaker and other sport fish to entice anglers.

Since its initial flooding, the Salton Sea has attracted a tremendous diversity of birdlife. Drawn by the marine-like waters and adjacent freshwater habitats formed by agricultural drainage; and marshes managed by the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, birds of the Pacific Flyway have sought out this wetland oasis to re-fuel before continuing south over the deserts of Mexico and on to their ultimate winter destination.

The Sea has been a winter home for more than 90 percent of the western population of American White Pelicans. It has hosted millions of Eared Grebes during their southward migration. Throughout the winter a birdwatcher can expect to see 27 species of waterfowl and 26 species of shorebirds. On the Refuge and immediate surrounding area, 424 species of birds have been documented.

But over time the evaporation of water in the hot desert of Imperial County, California, combined with fallowing of farm fields to supply additional water to San Diego County, has left the Sea a highly saline body of water that is losing its ability to sustain fish and organisms essential for migrating birds that depend on it for resting, feeding, and nesting habitat.

In a different time, other water bodies would have provided alternate spots for migrating birds, but loss and degradation of suitable habitat in this part of the Pacific Flyway necessitates the Salton Sea remain a staple of the Flyway.

Efforts to address the restoration of the Salton Sea have been in process for many years. One such project broke ground in November 2015. The Red Hill Bay restoration project spans approximately 420 acres of currently dry playa at the south end of the sea, on a portion of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

Using water from the Alamo River along with some hyper saline water from the sea, the two water sources will be pumped to two 210-acre impoundments where they can blend to create a more suitable saline content for maintaining wildlife habitat.

This project will be closely watched by experts to assess wildlife response, and if successful, as previous studies indicate, could show the way towards water reuse at the Salton Sea and in other areas of the west.


Christian Schoneman is the project leader for Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge . Jane Hendron is the public affairs specialist for the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office.

Contact Info: jane hendron, , jane_hendron@fws.gov