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Can a New Salton Sea Plan Fend Off Ecological and Health Disasters?

State officials are moving forward with a strategy for a “smaller but sustainable Salton Sea,” but some experts worry that it is not enough to stave off the growing risks to environmental and public health.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Lots of dead fish are seen on the bank of Salton Sea, a saline lake in Southern California, the United States, on April 29, 2016. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, and used to be a crowded resort drawing 1.5 million visitors annually at its peak. However, the lake is now in ecological crisis due to mandated water transfers, drought and pollution.Xinhua/Yang Lei via Getty Images

As the Salton Sea shrinks, California’s problems grow.

The 350 square-mile (900 sq km) saline lake in the southeastern corner of the state contains no outlet and is sustained by irrigation runoff. Inflows have been decreasing for a number of reasons, but since 2003 the biggest factor has been a transfer of agricultural water from neighboring Imperial Valley to San Diego County for urban use.

Decreased flows into the sea mean more exposed, dry lakebed to be whipped around by desert winds, creating health hazards for the 650,000 people who live nearby. Reduced inflows also mean increased salinity, which is bad for sustaining the marine life on which millions of migrating birds depend.

For decades the state and stakeholders have contemplated plans for the restoration and management of the lake. Significant progress was made on November 7 when the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCBaccepted an agreement on a 10-year management plan. But some observers question whether it will be enough to solve the sea’s ecological and health problems.

State officials, including the board’s chair Felicia Marcus, touted the plan for a “smaller but sustainable Salton Sea.” This is not the multi-billion-dollar restoration plan that was discussed years ago; it is a scaled-down effort to minimize the most disastrous health and environmental impacts from the shrinking lake, but one that seems likely to actually get the funding it needs.

The plan will cost $380 million, of which the state already has $80 million in hand. Another $200 million could come from a water and parks bond that will be voted on by Californians in the June 2018 election.

This price-tag is dwarfed by the estimated cost of doing nothing. “The continued failure to protect and preserve the Salton Sea, worsening air quality and the loss of valuable ecological habitat – combined with diminished recreational revenue and property devaluation – could cost as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years,” the Pacific Institute, a global water think-tank that has worked on Salton Sea issues for decades, reported in 2014.

The state’s newly approved Salton Sea Management Program expects the reduced inflows over the next 10 years to result in the exposure of 48,300 acres of dry lake bed. Over that period it intends to construct nearly 30,000 acres of ponds, wetlands and dust suppression on the edges of the lake to reduce the levels of playa dust and provide refuge for millions of migratory birds – more than 400 species have been spotted at the lake.

A bird flies near the North Shore Yacht Club at the Salton Sea, California on March 19, 2015. California’s largest lake is facing major environmental problems with a decreasing water level, increasing salinity and algae issues. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

But the clock is ticking on those efforts.

Under the 2003 water transfer agreement, the Imperial Irrigation District is required to deliver additional “mitigation water” to the Salton Sea, to offset the impacts of the water transfer to San Diego. But come January, those mitigation flows will cease, speeding up the rate at which the lake dries.

Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute, says that although inflows are being reduced, there is still more than enough water for new habitat projects: “The challenge has not been a lack of water, the challenge has been building projects. We need to get the [California] Natural Resources Agency, which is leading the effort, to get going. That’s what we really need to see happen.”

Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary of Salton Sea Policy for the agency, says: “There is $60 million in construction money available that we can get started with right now.” The first year of the plan calls for the construction of 500 acres of habitat, increasing up to 4,200 acres a year by 2028.

Wilcox stresses the importance of the agreement: “This is the first time that all of the major stakeholders involved agree that this is a plan we can move forward with. There are some disagreements on the speed we move forward, where we go first, those sorts of things. But everyone is in agreement this has to be done, these are the goals and that is a very, very important step toward being able to manage the Salton Sea.”

Not everyone is convinced the plan will be enough, however.

Timothy Krantz, professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, says that creating 30,000 acres of saline habitat wetlands around the edges of the Salton Sea over the next decade is a good thing, but it will not begin to address the scope of the problems.

His modeling shows that over the next 15 years, 90,000 acres of dry lake bed will be exposed. “The rest of the sea would be allowed to become hypersaline, we’ll lose the fishery in the next couple of years and this would remove the entire rest of the sea from ecological functions for fishing birds and migratory waterfowl,” he says.

Wilcox partly concurs, saying that the central part of the lake is expected to become too saline to support the current (and very limited) fishery, but the habitat projects on the edges will have inflows and also provide habitat for fish.

Krantz says the impact of the lake’s shrinkage on birds could be severe, particularly the North American populations of the American white pelican and eared grebes, most of which rely on the Salton Sea because of the loss of other habitat across the West. “This is kind of the last gasp for many of these migratory species,” he warns.

However, Krantz says the effect on human health is of more concern, as the region already has the the worst particulate pollution and the highest child hospitalization rates in California for asthma and other respiratory diseases. “We’re going to add to that an exponential increase in silt and other dust to the desert winds,” he says. “I’m afraid that we’re due for some pretty serious air quality impacts.”

A longer-term plan for the Salton Sea that looks beyond the next decade is still needed. Other factors in coming years could reduce flows even further, including an upcoming drought contingency plan between lower basin states sharing the Colorado River. And, Wilcox says, as farmers in the neighboring valleys get more efficient there will be less runoff of agricultural water flowing into the lake.

“But as long as farming continues in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, and there is no indication it won’t, we will always have a lake there – just a smaller lake than we have now.”

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