By Mary Slosson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Environmentalists on Thursday sued to stop a development project that would build a new town on the shores of the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, because they said it would increase pollution and threaten wildlife in nearby parks.
The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit against Riverside County after the Board of Supervisors approved a project that will see a community of nearly 40,000 people constructed on the northwest shore of the lake, according to city documents.
"This proposal for a large new town on the shrinking Salton Sea is the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time," Erin Calmers, an attorney who represents the Sierra Club in the case, said in a written statement.
Construction of the development, called Travertine Point, would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions, further degrade the region's poor air quality and threaten wildlife in neighboring park areas, the groups said.
Representatives for the project could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit on Thursday.
The development still needs approval from neighboring Imperial County and the federal government as 1,400 acres of the proposed project would be on nearby tribal land, Riverside County planner Matt Straite said.
"The project was reviewed properly and addressed all the concerns adequately," Straite said. "This project is far more environmentally friendly than most would be because you get to take it from scratch."
The Salton Sea, nestled between Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park near Coachella, is actually a lake made by human error when the dredging of the All American canal in the early 1900s "took one scoop too many" and opened a breach, according to Doug Barnum, USGS science coordinator in the agency's Salton Sea Science Office.
For 18 months, all of the Colorado River flowed into the Salton sink and created the lake, Barnum said, before the canal breach could be fixed.
More recently, the lake has been plagued by steadily dropping water levels and increasing salt levels, which will eventually result in a "catastrophic decline" in the fish population and a 25 to 50 percent drop in the migratory bird population, destroying a major stopping point in the Pacific bird migration route, he said.
Over 90 percent of California's wetlands have dried up, state authorities say, making Salton Sea even more critical.
As the lake's water recedes, wind stirs up the dried salt in the exposed lake bed and burns nearby crops, harming plants in the thriving agricultural region, Barnum added.
In documents submitted to the Riverside County Planning Department, the developers pledge to make a "significant contribution" to the Salton Sea restoration program.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)