The Players and the Subtext at the Salton Sea Summit

By Joan Taylor | Will attention lead to action? 

Inaction in the face of a massive ecological and public health crisis is unacceptable.

In spite of its dying fishery and hazardous exposed shoreline, the Salton Sea is still a stunningly gorgeous place and well worth saving. Proposals to fix the Sea’s problems have always been many, but feasible solutions few. After many years of paralysis by analysis, in 2017 the state of California finally gelled on a plan to deal with these issues, but to date nothing visible has happened. This made for some lively and refreshingly candid discussions at the recent standing-room-only Salton Sea Summit in Palm Desert.

Photo above: Viewing platform at Sony Bono Preserve – Snow Geese in the background. Photo by Jim Pompy.

The major players

First and foremost Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. His agency holds the bag to mitigate the adverse effects on the Salton Sea of the 2003 water transfer from Imperial County to San Diego—the largest ever such rural-to-urban water transfer.

Unlike his predecessor, Crowfoot has now visited this area multiple times. He delivered an earnest message at the Summit. Namely, that his agency inherited the Ten Year Plan which was already behind schedule when they got it. Most importantly, Crowfoot said that the Newsom administration is putting extra manpower behind the plan to get dust suppression and habitat management projects on the ground ASAP. Will Crowfoot’s words translate into action? Crowfoot’s new “boots on the ground” is Assistant Secretary for the Salton Sea, Arturo Delgado whose presentation was polite but rather guarded.

The next major player is Eduardo Garcia, Assemblyman for the two-county region around the Salton Sea. If anyone can provide support for state action, it would be he. Garcia grew up in the area and is a straight shooter who has gotten significant bond money for the Sea and plans to do so again. He is also determined to ensure that the state bureaucracy doesn’t hold up the use of those funds. Garcia was behind the bill that allows “design-build” for Salton Sea projects to streamline implementation. At his roundtable prior to the Summit he vowed to do more of the same if necessary.

Current planning (Dec 2019) for Salton Sea Projects. Credit: http://resources.ca.gov/salton-sea

Current planning (Dec 2019) for Salton Sea Projects. Credit: http://resources.ca.gov/salton-sea

Three other electeds also play a major role here. First, there is Congressman Raul Ruiz, whose job is to wrest federal dollars from a tight fisted administration, since this problem affects thousands of acres of federal lands in and around the Salton Sea.

Next is Riverside County Supervisor Manny Perez, a former state legislator who has created an “infrastructure-financing district” to partner with the state to fund levees capturing runoff from the north end of the Salton Sea to create a chain of deep-water lakes — thus suppressing dust, driving renewed tourism and providing a fishery for birds — all at the same time.

Also appearing at the Summit was Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who dropped the small bombshell that his Board was going to declare a state of emergency on account of air pollution caused by the receding shoreline which has exposed large areas of dusty playa to the wind. And now evidently the Board is on track to do same with regard to the heavily polluted New River. It remains to be seen what practical effect these moves will have.

Then there are several local cities such as Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs who have passed resolutions asking the state to look more seriously into the option of importing ocean water to the Salton Sea. Separately, there is also the Salton Sea Authority, which represents stakeholders in both counties and water districts.

Finally, and most crucially, come the beleaguered residents immediately adjacent to the Salton Sea. These primarily Latino communities are bolstered by nonprofits like the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, Comite Civico, Alianza, and California Institute for Rural Studies. An entire evening of the Summit was devoted to giving those who live there a voice to tell of high asthma rates caused by dust from the receding playa and of grossly underserved communities lacking decent jobs and infrastructure—a story that needs to be heard.

The solution(s)

Everybody who lives in the region seems to have his/her own opinion how to “save” the Salton Sea, ranging from just letting it dry up to filling it up to the brim with ocean water, and everything in between. In fact, it is the inability to coalesce behind one feasible solution that has caused paralysis and inaction for nearly two decades.

The “fill her up” camp says to import water from the Gulf of California or somewhere — damn the cost! But there is an inconvenient truth here: the Salton Sea inexorably evaporates six feet or more of water a year. With a surface area of 330 square miles this equates to continual concentration of astounding amounts of life-killing salt. Right now the Salton Sea is fed by relatively fresh water and salt is already the most intractable problem; this would be compounded by bringing in ocean water that is almost ten times saltier than current inflows.

Thus, unless the intent is to kill the Salton Sea while “saving” it, filling it with ocean water really requires both importing ocean water and somehow dealing with the resultant hyper saline water. The scale of such a project rivals two Colorado River Aqueduct sized aqueducts. And who pays the price tag to build, maintain and operate it?

So while very appealing, the scale of refilling the Salton Sea is extraordinary, and thus far no proponent has demonstrated that it’s viable economically. However, at the recent Summit, Secretary Crowfoot announced that the state would be taking a second look at the feasibility of import projects. Even if feasible this would require a decade or more to approve, finance and construct. Meanwhile, the general consensus is that the state’s near term plan must move forward to address the immediate crisis.

Near the State Recreation Area on the east shore. Photo by Craig Deutsche.

Near the State Recreation Area on the east shore. Photo by Craig Deutsche.

The Ten Year Plan

This proposal calls for both habitat and dust suppression projects. Dust suppression refers to various methodologies such as deep tilling, applying dust suppressants, planting salt tolerant vegetation on exposed playa, or some combination of methods which can move forward relatively quickly. Some of this is already being done by Imperial Irrigation District, and the state has identified high priority areas for dust suppression as soon as December.

State projects defined as “habitat” will also suppress dust, but in addition will provide viable habitat for the millions of migratory birds dependent on the Salton Sea. Habitat requires relatively fresh water inputs. On the south end of the Sea that means primarily capturing and spreading New River and Alamo River inflows by means of shallow ponds cascading from the river mouths. This should cover several thousand acres of exposed shoreline as well as provide very significant wading habitat for shorebirds. Price tag: about $200 million for the first phase, which could start construction late next year

The state’s plan also includes a North Lake complex fed by the Whitewater River and ag drains at the north end. This should provide multiple benefits for the region since it will be deeper water for public recreation and sport fishing as well as an essential food source for migratory birds. Cost: unknown, but funding presumably augmented by increased property taxes when raw land is developed or property transferred. Riverside County estimates that initial phases of this project could be completed by 2023.

The future?

The good news: there is a plan, there is more than 350 million dollars available and there is the political will and increasing state manpower to accomplish it. So in the near term, things look brighter than they have in years. But looking long term, it remains to be seen what can be done to manage the Salton Sea in the face of worsening drought.

Runoff from irrigated Imperial County fields is the main input sustaining the Salton Sea. However, there is increasing water conservation on ag land there, which means less runoff laced with more concentrated salts and other contaminants. More importantly, thirsty urban areas and southwest states have “come to the well” to get some of Imperial Irrigation District’s giant allocation of Colorado River twice already. When will they come again? And when they do come back to wrest more water, what will be their obligation under the law to mitigate for further diminishing the inflows to the Salton Sea? That whole scenario was not raised at the Summit.

Come back for next year’s Summit—the discussion may be even more provocative!

Additional info on the state’s Ten Year Plan and Long Term Planning process should be available and updated going forward at: http://resources.ca.gov/salton-sea/

Joan Taylor is Chair of the Tahquitz Group, CoChair of the Desert Committee and Chair of the Desert Energy Committee of Sierra Club, as well as appointee to the state’s Long Range Planning Committee for the Salton Sea.  Joan has been a desert activist with the Club for nearly fifty years.