©Desert Sun

Cold snap [or global COOLING?] blamed for winter die-off

Last month's cold snap has caused waves of dead fish to flood shores along the Salton Sea in a rare winter die-off.

It's unclear how many of the sea's estimated 200 million fish perished, but hundreds of thousands of rotting fish floated along the shoreline at Desert Shores on Friday.

"It smells worse than cow (manure)," Desert Shores resident Chuck Friedly said Friday.

Water temperatures that flirted with lethal levels - dipping to high-50s to lower-60s - are blamed for this most recent fish die-off in the state's largest lake, California Department of Fish and Game biologist Jack Crayon said Friday.

Officials first saw signs of the winter die-off about two weeks ago.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," said Gabe Jensen, a Salton City resident since 1997. "The fish are just terrible. I just got over a cancer treatment and the smell's not helping me."

Salton Sea residents may have further reason to want to pinch their noses: They'll likely shoulder any cleanup efforts, due to 2006 funding cuts.

Funding for Salton Sea fish-kill cleanups was cut last March, when the Salton Sea Authority, facing a financial crisis, cut a $110,000 annual contract for a specialized boat that scooped up dead fish before they reached shore.

"Nobody had any money (to give)," said Rick Daniels, the authority's executive director.

The authority now coordinates regular voluntary cleanups, using tools like pitch forks and garbage cans, Daniels said. The next one is scheduled for March 10.

Following August's "green tide" die-off, the authority spent about $5,000 cleaning the sea's state park area, Daniels said. The group was later reimbursed.

Pondering a nearby wall of dead fish that he said stretched 400 feet out to sea, Salton City resident Jensen lamented the major cleanup effort facing area residents. For years, various government agencies have debated who should handle these cleanups.

Crayon said that while fish kills may be an extreme public nuisance, they're not an environmental threat and, therefore, not a responsibility for the Department of Fish and Game.

"If there was a major fish kill in Lake Tahoe my guess is state agencies would take a very different view," said La Quinta City Councilman Tom Kirk, who helmed the Salton Sea Authority from 1998 to 2004.

"Unfortunately for people living at the Salton Sea, they are too often on the low end of the totem pole."