CVIndependent

Thu02222018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905, and its relentless deterioration began in earnest after the area’s heyday as a resort area in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the decades since, water levels have dropped precipitously, while pollution and salinization levels have skyrocketed—and as a result, the lake is a gradually evolving natural disaster in our backyard.

Over the years, various scientific and political initiatives have been proposed to forestall the very real dangers posed by the degrading sea. But few, if any, of the proposed solutions have been implemented.

Until now, that is.

“The two-pronged approach is moving forward under the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan,” said Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. “(The first prong is) concentrating on getting some construction done out there so there’s some habitat restored, and more importantly, from a public health point of view, getting some dust suppression happening. We’re doing that right now. We’ve already started.”

The second prong is still being developed, and various Salton Sea threat-management stakeholders—including the Salton Sea Authority, the California Department of Water Resources, the Imperial Irrigation District and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife—are in the process of conducting a series of community workshops, led by Wilcox, in cities surrounding the Salton Sea.

“These meetings are for anyone, but they’re particularly designed for the public,” he said. “We hold them in the evenings so that folks who are working during the day can go.”

What’s the goal of these workshops?

“What we’re hoping to get from the general public is some input on whether or not they think the short-term projects make sense,” Wilcox said. “Are (people) happy with where they are located (geographically)? What other longer-range solutions do you see for the Salton Sea? So far, we’ve gotten some interesting feedback. For instance, there’s concern about water import. There’s concern on the part of people who live on the west side of the sea as to how soon there might be a restoration program under way near them. Those are the sorts of things we’re trying to get from folks.

“Also, longer-term, we want to know if they think the two-pronged approach will work, and how well they think it might work, or what they think we should do to change it.”

One encouraging aspect of the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan rollout is that it offers the first evidence that separate bureaucratic efforts are finally coming together. Signed by the governor in October 2015, Assembly Bill 1095 called for the creation of a list of “shovel-ready” Salton Sea restoration projects by March 31, 2016.

“All of the projects which were mentioned in that bill are included in the 10-Year Plan,” Wilcox said. “Red Hill Bay has started construction.”

The Red Hill Bay Project is a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Imperial Irrigation District to restore habitat on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wilcox said the state-funded project includes about 500 acres.

Wilcox said other projects will get started later this year and early next year.

“The southwest corner of the sea includes the New River, and on the east side of that river, there are about 640 acres of species-conservation habitat,” he said. “We will advertise in the next month for a bid on the development of this project, and we should start construction on that later this year. That’s a deeper-water fisheries habitat. We now have salinity issues with the Salton Sea that are raising heck with the fisheries, so when we put these on the ground, we’ll manage the salinity in these impoundments. At least we’ll then have some stable fish habitats. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.”

The 10-Year Plan projects are expected to cost about $390 million in total. Who will provide that funding?

“We have $80 million in state of California grants stemming from (2014’s) Prop 1,” Wilcox said. “But we’re looking at getting additional funding from the (United States Department of Agriculture) perhaps, or from the (federal) watershed improvement acts. There’s a bill right now in the California State Senate that would provide additional funding. I’m confident that we’ll get the money we need.”

However, the Trump administration has not exactly embraced funding for environmental issues.

“Well, it’s a new administration, and we’re learning about them as they’re learning about us,” he said, rather diplomatically. “We have a signed memorandum of agreement with the Department of the Interior for funding. I’m going to assume that we’ll get that funding.”

However, Wilcox acknowledged that the memorandum was signed under the Obama administration.

“It certainly could be taken away,” Wilcox said. “But for the state of California, and for most people who look at this question, the cost of restoring the Salton Sea is a huge number. But when you look at it from the federal government’s perspective, it’s a line item in a budget, and there are all sorts of line items in there that are bigger than this one, so I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be able to prevail with the agencies. We’ve had some very productive discussions with them to this point. … But I don’t want to kid anybody. Funding is going to be an uphill fight. It always is, no matter what the project is.”

Wilcox expressed optimism that the 10-Year-Plan will succeed.

“I think the odds are reasonably good,” he said. “(The sea) won’t be like it was in the 1960s. It’ll be smaller, but sustainable. We call it the Salton Sea Management Program for that reason: It’s not restoration, necessarily. It’s to manage and impact all of the things going on.”

Workshops on the Salton Sea’s 10-Year-Plan are being held in cities all around the Salton Sea, including one at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, July 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio; and another at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 12, at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, 71100 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. For more information, including a complete schedule of workshops, visit resources.ca.gov/salton-sea.

Published in Environment

Sustainability. It’s a word that often comes up when discussing the Salton Sea—but what does “sustainability” truly mean?

On Saturday, May 24, environmental leaders and residents gathered at Second Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Thermal's Desert Mirage High School to learn about the sustainability plan being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as many other environmental issues.

Bruce Wilcox, environmental manager at the IID, presented the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative at the event organized by Comité Civico del Valle and Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto.

This initiative seeks to develop more than 1,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, with solar, wind and biofuel projects to follow in phases following the initial geothermal project.

According to the IID website, the Salton Sea possesses the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the nation. The agency's leaders believe the initiative would allow for the development of new jobs and economic development.

“IID has a network of air-quality monitors around the Salton Sea. Since the IID spans both sides of the sea, it pretty much does what (the South Coast Air Quality Management District) and (the Air Pollution Control District) do in Riverside and Imperial counties,” said Eduardo Guevara, executive director of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. “They have information we need them to share.”

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when a massive flood caused the Colorado River to burst through an irrigation canal and flow freely for 18 months into what was then known as the Salton Basin. It is a closed basin—which leads to the buildup of salt.

The Salton Sea, for now, is sustained by agricultural water inflow from the various agricultural locations within the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys. However, it is also evaporating at the same time.

It is important to note, however, that in 2017, an agreement that has led to an annual allotment of Colorado River water being diverted into the Salton Sea will end. The lack of incoming water will worsen the water-quality and air-pollution problems that are already prevalent. Year by year, the sea will slowly dry up, meaning pesticides, salts and fertilizers that have settled on the seabed will be exposed. Therefore, fine dust and toxins will become more airborne than they already are, thus endangering the health of the public, various agricultural fields and other parts of the local economy.

The IID initiative would create a renewable energy source in the Salton Sea, which would, in turn, provide some groundcover in the sea.

While the sea’s future depends on cooperation and deliberation by agencies and environmental leaders, the residents of the eastern Coachella Valley can aid in the effort to sustain the health and economy of the region by attending meetings and gatherings like the Environmental Health Leadership Summit.

“Ask, demand and be present,” urges Guevara. “Leaders are nothing without the people backing them up. They need to start demanding solutions and making elected officials accountable.”

To learn more about the IID’s Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, visit www.iid.com/index.aspx?page=663.

Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-media group in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorpaorated.org.

Published in Environment

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an unenviable job even in a wet year, but in prolonged periods of drought, the task of managing the Colorado River is even harder.

The agency is in charge of balancing the water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs: the serpentine desert lakes called Powell and Mead. Seven Western states depend on water from the Colorado for everything from showering to growing lettuce, and keeping the reservoirs at the proper level makes sure everyone gets their legal share—that is, until drought complicates things.

Fourteen years of drought exacerbated by a dry spring, and an even drier July, prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to do something it’s never done before: release less water from Lake Powell. That means water levels at Lake Mead, 250 miles downstream of Powell, will continue to drop, threatening to render one of two intake pumps inoperable, and leaving Las Vegas with only one source of water—and no backup.

Unlike many major cities in the Southwest that supplement Colorado River water with groundwater, Las Vegas depends almost entirely on the river. And according to a 2007 Colorado River water agreement, Arizona and Nevada would be the first to feel the effects of an official shortage declaration—when the Bureau of Reclamation would deliver less water to users in those states than normal—while California would not be affected. Reclamation's Lower Colorado River director, Terry Fulp, says a shortage could occur as soon as 2016.

So it’s easy to see why water managers in Southern Nevada are trying everything they can think of to get more water into Lake Mead—including going after a meager 10,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from a wildlife refuge on the Salton Sea. Just days after Reclamation announced its water cuts on the Colorado, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a letter to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge accusing its managers of illegally using Colorado River water to maintain wetlands and grow food for migrating birds.

The Salton Sea is a strange place. Created by accident in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal, the 381-square-mile lake became an important migratory stop-over and nesting site for many species of birds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. In 1930, President Hoover recognized the ecological importance of the sea by declaring portions of it a national wildlife refuge. Now, due to water efficiency measures on farms in the Imperial Valley and rural-to-urban water transfers, the sea is drying up, risking the health of both birds and people, who could choke on toxic dust from the sea bed, as happened downwind of Owens Lake in the early 20th century.

As a wildlife refuge, the folks at Sonny Bono are concerned primarily with the birds, and in order to maintain their wetland habitat, they have been buying 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for decades. “It’s not like we’re stealing water here,” says Michael Woodbridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve been doing it a long time and through the proper channels.”

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority disagrees, arguing that using Colorado River water to create habitat for birds is not technically irrigation, and therefore violates Imperial’s contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. (SNWA representatives declined to comment on the letter, citing “legal implications associated with this issue.”)

Although this water sale has been happening for years, a July court case gives SNWA a new legal leg to stand on. In Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that using water to construct waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation,” and that Nevada water law speaks of “irrigation solely in the context of agriculture and distinguish(es) such use from the application of water for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife purposes.”

Even before this new legal challenge, Patricia Mulroy, who heads up SNWA, has long held a grudge against the Salton Sea, calling it “an accident” and “agricultural runoff; that’s all it is,” in the Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy also told the newspaper that “it’s ludicrous to imagine fresh water being sent to evaporate in a lake that’s already saltier than the Pacific Ocean while Lake Mead threatens to shrink low enough to shut down Las Vegas’ water intakes and the turbines at Hoover Dam.”

Mulroy is also critical of previous efforts by the IID to replenish the sea, including a 2010 delivery of nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water that Reclamation is now forcing the district to pay back. The fact that Imperial has the right to much more Colorado River water than Nevada—3.1 million acre-feet, more than 10 times the Silver State’s annual allotment—could also have something to do with Mulroy's grudge. Still, SNWA maintains that neither drought or the recent court case influenced its decision to criticize water use at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea refuge.

For its part, IID maintains that sending irrigation water to the Salton Sea is legal. “It is folly to object to Colorado River water being used for environmental purposes at the Salton Sea. It is misguided. It is wrong as a matter of environmental policy, and it is wrong as a matter of law,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told the Imperial Valley Press.

So what could SNWA’s accusation mean for the Salton Sea? If the refuge can no longer buy water from IID, it could accelerate the exposure of the sea bed and potentially hasten the creation of toxic dust clouds. More certain is that without Colorado River water, tens of thousands of migrating birds won’t have rye grass to eat in the winter, which could force them to chomp crops on neighboring fields, angering farmers.

As Woodbridge says, “You can’t manage for wildlife in a place like the Salton Sea without water.”

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Local Issues

Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water.

Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy.

For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown. The valley is a heavy-hitter in the water world, with rights to one-fifth of the Colorado’s flow. In 2003, under immense pressure from the feds, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell some of that water to San Diego. But Imperial County officials worried the water transfers would hasten the demise of the Salton Sea, and sued after the deal was inked. Now, a recent ruling should put much of the dispute to rest, allowing the largest rural to urban water transfer in U.S. history to continue.

Legally, California is allowed to take 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado, but for many years, the state sucked more than that. Upstream states didn’t mind, as they weren’t using their entire allocations. But that changed around the millennium, when, as Ed Marston reported in High Country News in 2001, “the other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California’s use became institutionalized.”

So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rolled out the “4.4 plan,” designed to shrink California’s take of the Colorado back to its legal share. The plan called for lining the All-American Canal, which carries Colorado River water to Southern California, and sending the “reclaimed” water to cities. Cutting water use in the Imperial Valley, rather than in urban areas, was another major part of the plan.

In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years—if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.

And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.

The dramatic New Year’s cutoff worked. Later that year, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreeing to send 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for the next 75 years, or about 9 percent of its total Colorado River allotment. To meet the terms of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers fallowed some 36,000 acres of farmland.

But the water transfer, and accompanying efficiency measures, had an unexpected consequence: They accelerated the demise of our very own Salton Sea, which was created in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal and fed only by continued leaks.

Here’s the problem: If the sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley. Crops in the nation’s winter salad bowl—the Imperial Valley—will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we’ll all feel the fallout. (One minor bit of fallout: a series of valley-wide foul smells from the decaying lake, most recently on July 2.)

So the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and other plaintiffs sued, arguing the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, violated state environmental rules. In 2009, a judge agreed with the plaintiffs, but that decision was later overturned on appeal. The case finally made it to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where in June, Judge Lloyd Connelly upheld the 2003 agreement.

San Diego’s water authority was thrilled; General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the Los Angeles Times that the decision is “landmark victory in San Diego’s historic quest for a more reliable water supply.”

Up in the Imperial Valley, the mood was more somber. “Regardless of how the judge ruled, all parties to the agreement need to acknowledge that the Salton Sea is suffering, and its continued deterioration poses great risks in the future to the environment and public health,” Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in a statement.

As uncertain as the future of the sea is, Colorado River users may have a bigger problem on their hands: over-allocation. Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report predicting water demand will soon outstrip supply, due to drought, climate change and increased growth in the Southwest. In May, water districts, environmental groups, farmers and tribal members met in San Diego to discuss a way forward. The Imperial Irrigation District participated in the meeting, but made one thing very clear: no more rural to urban water transfers.

“We like to farm,” Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment