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05 May 2014

Saving the Sea: The Government Takes Baby Steps to Preserve the Salton Sea

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Later this year, the state will start constructing habitat ponds at the Salton Sea. “They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat,” said Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency. Later this year, the state will start constructing habitat ponds at the Salton Sea. “They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat,” said Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency.

The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding.

Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy?

This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority (SSA) to lead a restoration funding and feasibility study, in consultation with the (State of California Natural Resources) agency. This bill would also require the secretary (of the CNRA) to seek input from the authority with regard to specified components of restoration of the Salton Sea. By imposing duties on a local joint-powers authority (the SSA), the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

In plainer language: The bill is intended to identify strategies to address the serious environmental and social challenges facing the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California due to the Salton Sea’s tenuous future.

The most immediate result of the bill was the earmarking of $2 million in the 2014 state budget to fund a study to determine appropriate restorative actions.

“AB 71 was successful, because after it was passed, we managed to get funding, which was a really good feeling,” remarked Roger Shintaku, executive director of the SSA. “We fought long and hard to get the funding.”

Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency, is the point-person on the state’s involvement in the Salton Sea campaign.

“We’ve gone into contract with the Salton Sea Authority and their sub-contractor. … The study itself is very promising,” said Bright. “There’s an idea out there that we can encourage the development of a lot of geothermal and renewable energy resources around the Salton Sea, and that development can bring economic prosperity, and also provide revenues for further restoration activities.”

How would the revenue created by such development flow back into the restoration effort?

“More than 91 percent of the land under the sea basin is owned either by the Imperial Irrigation District or the United States government, so they would probably do some kind of leasing with development companies,” said Bright. “But one of the specific task orders in the study is to look at how you actually get revenue.”

Shintaku’s SSA is supervising the creation of an action plan as the first phase of the study.

“The first step in the feasibility study is to take the plan and make it more detailed and goal-oriented,” he said. “We’ve broken down specific tasks we want to accomplish along with the schedule, because we need to finish the feasibility study by May 2016.”

Of course, revenue and cost considerations can make or break any long term plans—especially when it comes to a project as daunting as saving the Salton Sea.

“We need to examine what was laid out in the past and then try to inject the reality of today’s finances in an effort to see what we can do,” Shintaku said. “The bottom line is that we want to advance ecosystem restoration, and we want to advance any mitigation efforts, but we have to look at our own financial ability first, because we can’t really count on anyone else coming in.”

What about the state budget funds earmarked to support SSA efforts? “The state is obligated to help out,” agreed Shintaku. “At the same time, we’re looking at what we can do locally without help from the state or federal governments. We’re doing what we can to move this forward.”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence—as the Salton Sea’s water supply will soon decrease. In 2003, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State of California and the U.S. Interior Department signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which requires that annual allotments of Colorado River water are diverted into the Salton Sea. However, that agreement ends in 2017.

Can anything be done in the near term to address the other challenges linked to this looming environmental, economic and public-health crisis?

“The renewable projects themselves could be dust-storm preventers,” Bright observed. “… By this autumn, the state will begin constructing 600 to 700 acres of projects on the ground. Our focus and investment is in habitat ponds, which are really the most difficult to build. They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat. Meanwhile, (the Imperial Irrigation District) is focusing on shallow-water habitats that are slightly less challenging, but equally important.”

Curiously, there seems to be no serious discussion about delaying the QSA deadline on Colorado River-water allotments.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” said Bright. “But I don’t know if the benefits are really there, because the tipping point on the salinity of the sea is already being reached. Undoing the QSA would be a monumental feat. We’re trying to work within our current framework toward the best solution and give us some kind of pathway to the future.”

Shintaku said that no matter what is done, the Salton Sea will always be around, in one form or another.

“If nothing else happens, and there’s still agriculture in the area, there’s going to be water draining into the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question. The real question is: What kind of sea will there be?

“As we move forward after the feasibility study, we’d like to try to improve on what’s happening with the species-conservation habitat and develop projects that maintain habitats and address future concerns of dust proliferation,” he continued. “We cannot say for certain that all 365 square miles of seabed will be a dust bowl. We won’t know until the sea actually recedes. That’s another challenge for us, to develop a program that will allow us to do dust control when such conditions arise, or avoid it by keeping areas wet or planting vegetation.”

Of course, all of this work is being attempted in the midst of the worst drought California has seen in recorded history. How could this reality not serve as an impediment?

“My feeling is that it’s been helpful, because it’s put the focus on water issues in the Legislature and where we put our priorities for water,” said Bright. “So in this year’s California Water Action Plan, the Salton Sea was put in as one of the priorities. … Other water areas have definitely been impacted by the bandwidth suck of the drought, but this is probably one of the few areas that hasn’t.”

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