Other uses for the Salton Sea: carbon sequestration, grebe magnet

January 16th, 2014 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

The Salton Sea is one of the most photographed bodies of water in the world –  that is for satellites more than 400 miles from the earth’s surface.

That was one of the first bits of interesting information about the sea the Renewable Energy Roundtable got from Doug Barnum, the U.S. Geological Survey’s science guy for the Salton Sea, during a fact-filled presentation Thursday morning at UCR’s Palm Desert Graduate Center.

The reason, he said, is the sea is so big, it is one of the more easily visible and recognizable land or water forms from that high up, and is one of about a dozen places on earth that Landsats — NASA satellites that collect images of the earth from space — use to calibrate their instruments.

Barnum also dropped some intriguing hints about yet another possible revenue stream from the Salton Sea that could be tapped for its restoration — carbon sequestration.

“The Salton Sea is a giant carbon sponge,” he said. ”The blue green algae is the most efficient (for) carbon uptake. Maybe that’s something we can sell.”

Barnum would not elaborate, research is in the very early stages, but the way he explained it was something along the lines of carbon offsets that could be sold to urban industrial emitters of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

On the environmental side, he spoke about the estimated 400 species of migratories birds that touch down at the sea at some point in their yearly travels, which have been banded and later tracked at almost all points around the globe, from South America to Russia and central Asia.

One figure that caught my attention is that California’s largest lake is something of a grebe magnet, especially for eared grebes. At any one time, depending on the time of year, upwards of 500,000 of the red-eyed water birds may be in the region. Here was the answer to a question that had long been puzzling me – why grebes, both eared and Western, have been regularly showing up among the relatively small number of birds that have been found dead, possibly after crashing into solar panels, at the Desert Sunlight solar project about 50 or so miles north of the sea.

Things have been relatively quiet at the project, birdwise, as December and January are not migration months. But the one bird death recorded at Desert Sunlight for the whole month of December was an eared grebe. More typical of the numbers this fall, the week Oct. 28-Nov. 3, the avian deaths recorded at the project included two eared grebes, one Western grebe, an American coot and a sora, a little marsh bird. The week before that, the carcasses of four Western grebes were found at Desert Sunlight, along with two live birds that were released at Lake Tamarisk.

The numbers provide a bit of perspective — yes, even one dead grebe is one too many, but in the bigger picture of species survival, we are far from critical mass. What is more significant is that it more clearly shows that for solar projects in the Riverside East solar zone — between Joshua Tree National Park and the city of Blythe — proximity to major migratory birds havens, such as the Salton Sea, should be a consideration when evaluating potential environmental impacts.

This was not the case for the first projects approved in the zone, including Desert Sunlight, but hopefully it will be as more rigorous prevention and monitoring plans are put together for projects now being permitted, such as NextEra Energy Resources’s Blythe project, which won approval from the California Energy Commission on Wednesday. The 485-megawatt project still has to earn approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and nail down some utility contracts, but if and when it is built, it could cover about 4,000 acres of desert with dark, shiny panels that, to birds, might look like one enormous lake.


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