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A Path to Progress for the Salton Sea

Lori Pottinger June 26, 2018
Salton Sea - California

The Salton Sea—created by a break in a Colorado River irrigation canal more than a century ago and for decades dependent on irrigation runoff for sustenance—has a water problem. The already-shrinking desert lake used to receive a temporary water supply as part of a Colorado River water trading agreement that sent some irrigation water to Southern California cities. But this temporary supply was cut off at the end of 2017, which has worsened environmental and health problems caused by the sea’s declining water levels.

We talked to Kurt Schwabe—a professor at UC Riverside and an adjunct fellow of the PPIC Water Policy Center—about possible solutions. Schwabe helped organize a recent symposium on the sea that explored impacts on local communities, new research, and policy solutions.

PPIC: Why does the Salton Sea need more water right now?

Kurt Schwabe: In 2003 the State Water Board allocated water to temporarily manage the dust and ecosystem problems associated with the shrinking sea. The board gave itself 15 years to develop a plan to address these impacts. Although the state is behind in implementing solutions, the water allocation cutoff wasn’t postponed, and now the sea is shrinking at a faster pace. The increase in dust has a direct impact on respiratory illnesses and life expectancy in the region, which raises equity issues.

Another problem is that water salinity is increasing as the sea shrinks. Time is running out for the wildlife the sea supports. As explained by researchers at the symposium, fish populations have crashed and won’t recover, thereby resulting in the loss of birds that depend on the fish. We may see new populations of birds that eat brine flies, yet without an effective management plan those birds will last only about a decade until the sea becomes too salty even for brine flies. In a nutshell, the ecosystem doesn’t have 10 years for us to find a solution. More water and less saline water―similar to the water allocation provided from 2003 to 2017―would slow the decline and buy the state time to further develop or implement solutions.

So it’s time to come up with quick and cost-effective ways to mitigate the problems. Recent passage of Proposition 68 will provide around $200 million to support construction costs in the state’s 10-year plan, but this plan is a short-term and imperfect fix. There’s growing interest in finding ways to import water from elsewhere―but that could take a decade or so to implement, is extremely costly, and does not address the worsening public health and environmental impacts happening now. An obvious near-term solution would be to extend the allocation of water to the sea until the actual rollout of the management plan. It’s a reasonable and quick fix: the conveyance to move water is already in place, it’s a tried and true solution, and it’s very cost-effective.

PPIC: What role could a water market play in managing the sea’s problems?

KS: Water markets could be a longer-term fix to replace the temporary water allocation, and would allow growers to make choices about how to best get needed water to the sea. A market would let farmers choose how best to free up that water—either by installing more efficient irrigation, shifting to less water-needy crops, fallowing land, or some combination of these. From a technical standpoint, a water market could be implemented almost immediately.

PPIC: What are the key stumbling blocks to getting more water to the sea quickly?

KS: The stumbling blocks are mostly political. Water transfer schemes have been used in the region for more than 20 years and typically involve Southern California municipal water agencies leasing water from irrigation districts in Imperial County. This isn’t to say that getting such a fix approved is an easy task, since the politics surrounding California water are notoriously challenging. Yet I would argue that the dire and worsening human health consequences being borne every day by local communities near the sea justify urgent action.

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