New Hope for the Salton Sea

By Michael Cohen, Senior Associate, Pacific Institute

The Salton Sea, a vast saltwater lake in remote southeastern California providing crucial habitat for birds and wildlife, is quickly approaching a tipping point. Yet several recent actions give hope the lake could turn a corner in the near future.

Just yesterday, California announced the appointment of Bruce Wilcox, a very knowledgeable and action-oriented leader, to the newly-created position of assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. Last year, California voters approved a massive water bond with a sizeable chunk of money that could be directed toward Salton Sea activities. And, consensus is beginning to emerge over short- and medium-term projects at the declining Salton Sea.

Sitting some 234 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea formed in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded, tearing through an unprotected diversion canal and refilling a former lakebed in the desert. Today, irrigation water flows through the fields of the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali valleys and drains into the lake, sustaining it.

This water offsets evaporation losses; without it, the lake would steadily shrink and eventually disappear. This process concentrates the salts and other contaminants carried by the river and from the fields themselves.

Although the Salton Sea is 50 percent saltier than the ocean, it supports more than 420 different species of resident and migratory birds, ranging from white and brown pelicans to eared grebes, curlews, ibis, avocets and snowy plovers. It also supports millions of fish and a host of invertebrates, important food sources for the birds.

Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.
Cormorants and herons at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

The amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea will soon decrease dramatically, with rapid and catastrophic consequences. Fish will die out. Birds will lose their food source. The lake will shrink and the exposed lakebed will emit large amounts of disease-causing dust unless action is taken quickly.

The reason for these decreased inflows is that, after 2017, “mitigation” water will no longer be delivered to the Salton Sea by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID). Up until now, this arrangement has served to offset the loss of the water provided to San Diego County as part of the nation’s largest farm-to-urban water transfer. Moreover, the mitigation water deliveries will end even as the amount of water transferred to San Diego County increases.

This means that from 2017 to 2018, inflows to the lake could fall by almost 200,000 acre-feet – more than 18%, an enormous change. Within 10-12 years, the elevation of the lake could drop by as much as 20 feet, its salinity could triple, and its area could shrink by as much as 100 square miles.

The shrinking Salton Sea will expose tens of thousands of acres of lakebed. The dry lakebed could emit as much as a hundred of tons of dust each day, posing a severe threat to public health. It would also remove one of the last remaining havens for birds and wildlife along this Sonoran Desert stretch of the Pacific Flyway. Some 90 percent of the original wetlands of the Colorado River Delta and central California have dried up or been converted into farm fields, making the Salton Sea a critical link on the Pacific Flyway.

As documented in a 2006 Pacific Institute report, the loss of water will devastate the Salton Sea ecosystem and severely impact public health. In a region that already fails to meet state and federal air quality standards for dust, the exposure of additional dust-emitting lakebed will require very expensive air quality control measures. In Owens Lake, not far to the north, dust management costs could exceed $1.4 billion.

Fortunately, even allowing for the IID-San Diego County water transfer, a huge volume of water – more than 700,000 acre-feet per year – will continue to flow into the lake. Properly managed, this water could create and sustain tens of thousands of acres of productive habitat, minimize dust, and create recreational and economic opportunities.

Turning a Corner

Now, after more than 50 years of studies and meetings, the future of the Salton Sea may offer some glimmers of hope. National Geographic and The New Yorker have highlighted the Sea’s plight, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (the Board) and Little Hoover Commission have held workshops and hearings, the governor recently convened a new Salton Sea Task Force, and just yesterday he announced the appointment of the new assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy. These are all important and very welcome steps.

Brown pelican at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.
Brown pelican at the Salton Sea. Photo courtesy of Daniel Edwards.

The renewed interest began last November, when IID submitted a petition to the Board that, among other things, asks it to link the IID water transfer to California’s funding and implementation of a Salton Sea restoration project. If the state refuses to meet its end of the bargain by undertaking the restoration of the Salton Sea, the argument goes, why should IID risk massive liability arising from dust blowing off of lands exposed because of the water transfer?

IID’s petition arrived in the midst of California’s devastating drought, challenging California’s complacency about Colorado River reliability. IID’s transfer currently provides about 15% of San Diego County’s total water supply. The threat to water supply reliability for urban residents has focused attention on the Salton Sea and the need for state action.

This new focus comes just as construction of some 1200 acres of shallow wetland habitats is about to begin. Two new habitat projects – California’s Species Conservation Habitat project at the New River delta and the joint IID/US F&WS Red Hill Bay project at the Alamo River delta – should demonstrate the tremendous potential to use agricultural drainage to create high-quality habitat and protect public health.

View the SaltonSeaProjectsMap pdf for planned and proposed Salton Sea Projects, prepared by Bureau of Reclamation.

Complementing these shovel-ready projects, IID’s new Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative lays out a plan for moving forward. The Initiative calls for thousands of additional acres of habitat projects atop exposed Salton Sea lakebed, combined with dust management projects in more remote areas, as well as expanded access for geothermal projects. The Initiative is a critical step.

In addition, the local Salton Sea Authority is currently developing a new, long-term project that works with limited water, time, and incremental funding to create habitat and recreation and economic development opportunities.

These first habitat projects and (more broadly) a vision for a “smaller but sustainable Salton Sea” are falling into place. Stakeholders have reached consensus on the path forward.

Time to Act

California’s creation of the new assistant secretary position and the governor’s excellent choice of a proven leader to staff the position gives hope that the state is now committing to the Salton Sea. The new assistant secretary is fortunate to have momentum in his favor, along with a clear plan for moving forward and broad consensus. Money is also available, in the form of the recent water bond, and just needs to be appropriated to give the new assistant secretary and others the resources to act.

Governor Brown’s next budget should commit sufficient money to complete existing Salton Sea habitat projects and begin work on the next phase of projects.

The State Water Resources Control Board should schedule a hearing on revisions to its outdated water order on the transfer.

Southern California water agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District, should encourage legislators who represent their service areas to vote for significant Salton Sea funding. Failure to fund these efforts could jeopardize the IID-San Diego County water transfer and southern California’s supply of Colorado River water. The urban water agencies need to lend their considerable political clout to this agenda .

If these steps are taken, in 2017, state officials could host a dedication ceremony for the completion of more than a thousand acres of shallow wetland habitats at the Salton Sea and the initiation of additional air quality management and habitat projects. This event and progress would highlight California’s commitment to protection of public and environmental health, as well as ensuring long-term water reliability for urban Southern California.

There’s new hope for the Salton Sea. The next several months will determine whether we can convert this hope into reality.

Michael Cohen is a Senior Associate at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute. He is the author of several reports and articles about the Salton Sea, including Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea (2014).

Changing Planet

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