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Remaking the Salton Sea

Lori Pottinger April 6, 2017
Great Egret With Huge Meal

The Salton Sea—California’s largest lake—faces an environmental crisis. The already-shrinking desert lake will receive less water starting next year, which will accelerate the exposure of toxic dust along its shore, increase its already high salinity, and reduce a food source and habitat for hundreds of bird species that rely on the lake.

The sea, which was created by a break in a Colorado River irrigation canal in the 1900s, for decades relied on irrigation runoff from local farms for sustenance. In recent years, the sea received a temporary water source arranged as part of a Colorado River water trading agreement that is sending some irrigation water to cities on the Southern California coast. But these temporary flows are slated to end in January 2018, after which inflows to the lake will decline.

Various proposals to restore the sea over the years were deemed too costly (both in dollars and water). Now, a recently released 10-year plan by the state proposes to address both dust and habitat problems for a price tag of $383 million—down from earlier, longer term restoration plans that were projected to cost as much as $9 billion. The plan will include farm runoff to the sea through a new canal and new bird habitat areas.

We talked to two experts who have a long involvement in trying to resolve this complex water challenge: Fran Spivy-Weber, who as former vice chair of the State Water Resources Control Board was involved in multiple programs to address the sea’s problems, and Lester Snow, who has worked on the sea for more than a decade in his various capacities in the state’s water agencies and most recently on behalf of the Water Foundation. Both are members of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s advisory council.

“For so long, nothing was done. Now there’s a realistic plan that can help guide expenditures,” Spivy-Weber said. “It’s not a gold-plated plan. The state is trying to create something that does the job as cost effectively as possible.”

Dust has been “a sleeping giant of a problem that brings serious public health risks,” Snow said. The region has some of the highest asthma-hospitalization rates in the state, and dust from the sea has worsened already bad air quality. “I believe the lake’s dust problem is now getting the attention it needs, with a number of legislators now focusing on it.”

The plan is to build thousands of acres of shallow ponds to cover the dust-prone exposed shore; these will double as wildlife habitat. In other areas, hillocks will be built to stop blowing dust—an approach that has worked at Owens Lake, which dried up from overuse after its source was diverted to Los Angeles.

Because California has lost nearly all of its riparian and wetland habitat over the past century, the Salton Sea is now a critically important stop for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway. “Many species of birds adopted the sea as a critical part of their migration path, so maintaining its habitat functions is important,” Snow said. More than 400 species rely on the lake, some of them endangered.

The state plan has a 10-year scope, which Spivy-Weber noted will make it more adaptable to changing conditions. “If you tried to do a long-range plan you’d probably have to change it at 10 years anyway,” she said. “Let’s get started and show some real progress, and start to think about how to address things like how quickly the sea is receding, how the cost of water is changing, and what we want to do about developing the large geothermal resources in the region.”

Spivy-Weber said the plan’s success depends on sustained interest from Sacramento. “We’ll need the next administration to be as interested and as flexible as this one has been in implementing plans and appropriating money. It’s also incredibly important that the legislature makes the Salton Sea as a priority and ensures that some funds go into projects for the sea every year.”

The multi-state commitment to improve management of the Colorado River brings momentum to the effort. Arresting the sea’s decline is tied to an agreement on sharing the river’s over-allocated waters. “We need to bring rational water management to the Colorado River, and live within our means,” Snow said. “The Salton Sea is a linchpin to our sustainable management of this important resource.”

Learn more

Read recommendations from the state’s Salton Sea Task Force
Read California’s Water: The Colorado River (from the California’s Water briefing kit, October 2016)

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