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Imperial Valley agencies develop plan to save ailing Salton Sea

ConservationPetroleum IndustryEnvironmental IssuesRenewable EnergyEnergy SavingAlternative EnergyV. Manuel Perez

SAN DIEGO — With an ominous deadline approaching, two feuding Imperial Valley agencies have put aside their differences and developed a plan they hope can save the ailing Salton Sea, the state's largest body of water and often considered its most vexing environmental problem.

The Imperial Irrigation District and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors have agreed to push for additional geothermal energy exploration on the eastern edge of the sea.

The goal is to raise money for restoration projects from the profits from energy sales. Officials also want the geothermal companies — and the utility agencies that buy the electricity — to take care of Salton Sea property that is now underwater but may soon be open to the air.

A sense of urgency comes from the fact that after 2017, under its water sales agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District will no longer send water directly into the sea.

Without that water, the shallow, salty, tea-colored sea will recede further, exposing more sea bottom — worsening the sea's noxious smell as well as dust storms that plague the Coachella and Imperial valleys.

After 2017, "the Salton Sea falls off a cliff environmentally," said Kevin Kelley, the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.

"This is our best hope," said Ralph Cordova, chief executive officer of Imperial County.

There are daunting obstacles.

Salton Sea restoration projects are estimated to cost billions of dollars, although there are plans to scale down any projects. Anything involving water and energy in California is enormously complex — technically, legally and politically — and the sea, located in a lightly populated area, does not appear to have much of a political constituency in Sacramento.

Still, decision-makers in Sacramento are talking about the plan.

"Anything that helps the state expand its renewable energy, I'm very supportive of," said Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. "We need all the resources we can develop out there in the Imperial Valley."

Karen Douglas, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, recently went kayaking on the Salton Sea. "The renewable energy potential is there and it's real," she said. "But there is a lot of analysis and work to translate that potential into reality."

Geothermal energy production can involve drilling wells to tap into the Earth's heat and water. Once that heated water is brought to the surface, it can be used to power turbines that produce electricity. Imperial Valley is considered to have one of the nation's largest geothermal reservoirs.

Making the plan a reality would require a transmission line to get the energy to the grid.

The California Natural Resources Agency is preparing a report on the Salton Sea, with a deadline set for May 2016. The report will include information that could "inform the decision-making processes" at the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit group that oversees the state's electricity system and its transmission lines.

In hopes of gathering more support, Kelley last week talked to his peers at the Los Angeles convention of the Assn. of California Water Agencies.

"The Salton Sea should be given great consideration," particularly with the energy loss from the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant, Kelley said.

The Salton Sea was created when the Colorado River jumped its banks in 1905 and gushed into an ancient salt sink straddling Riverside and Imperial counties. Its major sources of replenishment are the noxious New River flowing from Mexicali, Mexico, and pesticide-laden agricultural runoff.

To sell water to San Diego, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed in 2003 to use less of its massive share of the Colorado River. Less water for irrigation means less runoff and a shrinking Salton Sea.

The irrigation district has estimated that 50,000 acres of sea bottom, full of sediment and small-grain particles, would soon be exposed to the air and wind.

To keep that from happening, the 45-year water deal includes a provision to put water into the sea for the first 15 years. The Imperial County Board of Supervisors joined other opponents in suing to block the 2003 water deal on environmental grounds, but the lawsuit has been unsuccessful.

The water deal included a promise from the state to step up its efforts at the Salton Sea. So far, that promise has been more talk than action, according to a recent audit; Imperial Valley officials hope that if they take the lead, the state will finally follow.

"We hope it will encourage the state to live up to its commitment," Cordova said.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella) invited Gov. Jerry Brown to visit the area and discuss a plan to export thousands of megawatts of renewable energy from the Salton Sea area.

"The clock is ticking and we could be up against a public health disaster, along with an environmental one," Perez said.

At 375 square miles, the Salton Sea provides habitat for more than 400 bird species. Although it also suffers periodic fish and bird die-offs often because of oxygen deprivation in the water, the sea remains a crucial stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.

The Imperial Irrigation District is trying to gain support from the Department of Interior, which had heavily pressured the agency into signing the water deal with San Diego. Like the water district, the federal government owns land beneath and beside the Salton Sea.

The geothermal plan has already caught the attention of Kerry Morrison, a singer and environmental activist who started a campaign called Save Our Sea. He prefers an alternative approach — bringing water to the Salton Sea from Mexico's Gulf of California — and plans to create a video to promote the idea.

But anything that brings the dire condition of the Salton Sea to the public's attention is good, Morrison said.

"People shouldn't wait until they get the stink or the dust in their face," he said. "We don't have to let it get to that point."

tony.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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