updated 5/16/2006 1:38:03 PM ET 2006-05-16T17:38:03

A new study warns that if no restoration efforts are launched to save California’s largest lake, the lake could shrink and fish could die.

The Salton Sea, a critical habitat for migrating birds, has been a decades-old environmental issue in California. The state is preparing to release a draft proposal next month outlining possible solutions.

The study, issued Tuesday by Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, warns that if no action is taken, the lake will shrink by more than 60 percent in the next 20 years, creating a host of health problems for Imperial County residents, according to a study by Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.

Increased salinity will kill all the fish — an essential food source for the area’s more than 400 species of birds — in the Salton Sea within 12 years, and air quality will sharply decline as more dusty lakebed is exposed each year to desert winds, the study said. The area already has the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the state.

“There has been talk about doing something with the Salton Sea for 30 (to) 40 years now but nothing has been done,” said Michael Cohen, senior associate with Pacific Institute and co-author of the study.

The lake, located in the state’s southeastern corner near the U.S.-Mexico border, was recently the subject of water transfer agreements approved to reduce the state’s dependence on the Colorado River.

Under the agreements, officials have begun transferring water to the more heavily populated areas of San Diego, ultimately reducing the amount flowing to the Salton Sea. Already dependent on water flows to balance high salinity intrinsic to the lake, the Salton Sea is on a perilous track, experts say.

As part of the water transfer agreements, the state passed legislation directing state agencies to develop a restoration plan and California’s Resources Agency plans to issue a draft environmental report in June that will include 10 alternatives for the lake.

Of the 10 options, eight would offer partial restoration and two would consist of no action, said Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea Office of the state Department of Water Resources.

“My fear is that when the state outlines its alternatives there will be a huge sticker shock,” Cohen said, referring to an estimate that it could cost more than $1 billion for long-term restoration plan.

Others said the study was an important step forward.

“It’s a reality check that there are consequences of just doing nothing, of just walking away,” said Doug Barnum, a U.S. Geological Survey chief scientist at the Salton Sea Science office. “This report goes a long way to illustrating what those consequences are.”

The report is online at www.pacinst.org/reports/saltonsea.

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