The Salton Sea is sometimes referred to as Southern California's Lake Tahoe, and while efforts to save the northern lake took shape 20 years ago, officials only now are making big decisions about the future environmental health of the southern water body.

The Salton Sea (which is also sometimes called a lake) has been in a downward environmental spiral in recent years. Rising salinity, warnings about eating its fish, oxygen depleting algal blooms, and the deaths of thousands of birds and fish have plagued the Salton. But in January, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that looked at five alternatives designed to improve the sea's health.

The alternatives all involve evaporating salt from the sea to increase the health of its fish population. The five alternatives are really a combination of three different plans for removing salt. They range from such standard ideas as using two evaporating ponds, to building evaporation towers up to 130 feet tall, to using snowblowers that would disburse water. The blowers, similar to those used in snow making, would shoot Salton Sea water into the air and into an evaporation pond. The towers would drop the water in a spray. Either way, salt could be collected from evaporation ponds. A final decision on the alternatives is due by mid-year, but an $8.5 million pilot program to try out all three ideas has already been funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and is under way. The sea, located in both Riverside and Imperial counties, is on a salty ancient lake bed, and has grown saltier over the years. The sea does not drain to another water body.

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when construction of an irrigation canal accidentally diverted Colorado River water into a dry lake. The water flow continued for one and a half years. By that time, the water had created the largest lake entirely within the state boundaries. The Salton Sea is 34 miles long and between nine and 10 miles wide.

Over time, the sea's salinity has risen as water evaporated in hot desert temperatures, and saline is now at 43 parts per thousand. By comparison, the Pacific Ocean's salt level is 35 parts per thousand. If the level reaches 60 parts per thousand � as could happen during the next 15 to 20 years unless something is done � most of the Salton's 100 million fish will die. Thousands of birds use the lake as a major stopping point on migratory journeys. With most wetlands in Southern California destroyed through urbanization, the Salton Sea serves as an important food source. But disease problems have killed more than 200,000 birds at the Salton Sea since 1992, including endangered California brown pelicans. Thousands of fish have also died during that period.

"It's a thorny issue to improve the environmental quality of the Salton Sea," said Perry Plumart, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society. "Nobody knows the answer. It's not clear what's killing the birds."

Besides the salt level, high levels of phosphates in the sea from agriculture and from the remains of dead fish also hurt the water quality. Dead fish will be removed from the sea as part of new efforts to improve the water quality. Last year, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-commissioned report from the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security blamed many of the current ecological problems on the intensive use of fertilizers in the Imperial Valley. However, the EIS issued in January downplayed any threat to the sea from other agricultural byproducts, such as pesticides.

The Department of Interior proposals are expected to cost between $300 and $600 million, according to Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a joint powers authority that is working with the federal government to restore the water body. Kirk expects the money to come from both federal and state sources.

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both have promised to get money for the sea's restoration, and the efforts to improve the sea are also strongly supported by local legislators, including Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs). According to officials with the Coachella Valley Water District, an earlier plan to help preserve the Salton Sea died in 1974 due to a lack of federal and state funding.

A number of other ideas have been proposed to solve the sea's problems. One of the most interesting recent proposals is to build two canals from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to the Salton Sea. One canal would be used to pump the saltiest water; the other canal would be used to carry ships. But the $3.3 billion proposal by Metcalf & Eddy, a Massachusetts engineering firm, is not expected to go anywhere. Letting the sea evaporate and then die would create other problems, such as exposing remaining pollutants to desert winds, which would carry contaminates into the air.

Steps taken to improve the sea's health are expected to increase tourism and development near the lake. Salton Sea State Park already hosts 200,000 visitors a year, but tourism started declining in the mid-1980s when warnings were issued about eating fish in its waters, due to selenium. The sea is still popular with duck hunters, boaters and water skiers. Another challenge facing the sea is that less water from Imperial County is expected to enter into it as the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) begins a controversial water transfer to San Diego County Water Authority.

The sea, which on average is about 30 feet deep, could drop 10 to 15 feet when the IID diverts water, according to Kirk of the Salton Sea Authority. This is a similar in some ways to what happened to Owens Lake when Los Angeles removed water there during the early 1900s.

But Salton Sea concerns are expected to be addressed in an EIS on the water transfer. Imperial Irrigation District representatives sit on the Salton Sea Authority. IID also faces state mandates to reduce waste flows to the sea. At the state level, last July Governor Davis signed SB 223 by State Senator David Kelley, which gave the Salton Sea Authority the right to form an infrastructure financing district for the reclamation and environmental restoration of the sea. Proposition 12, the state parks bond on the March ballot, is expected to provide up to $87 million for sea restoration.

Contacts: Tom Kirk, Salton Sea Authority, (760) 564-4888 Perry Plumart, National Audubon Society, (202) 861-2242