Watchdog panel calls for immediate action to avoid 'disaster' at Salton Sea

The state government should move immediately to prevent an economic and environmental disaster caused by the decline of the Salton Sea, a state watchdog group said Thursday.

The Little Hoover Commission, in a report titled "Averting Disaster: Action Now for the Salton Sea," called on the state to fund restoration projects from the Proposition 1 water bond approved by voters last year.

As the Salton Sea shrinks, toxic dust storms will increase, harming public health in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the report warned. The region's economy will suffer and migratory birds will die or be forced to go elsewhere.

"The state has studied this subject long enough," said commission vice chair Loren Kaye. "Now is the time for action."

A similar call has come from officials in Imperial and Riverside counties. The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank, issued a report last year predicting an environmental catastrophe unless swift and substantial action is taken.

Along with its report, the commission announced it will hold a hearing in April to monitor state progress and request a briefing in August.

To be replenished, the Salton Sea, 35 miles long and an average 15 miles wide, is largely dependent on agricultural runoff. Its salt level exceeds that of the ocean and fish die-offs are common.

As runoff decreases, due to more efficient irrigation and a 2003 water sales pact between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, the sea continues to shrink, with more pesticide-laden sea bottom exposed to the desert air and frequent wind storms.

As part of the 2003 pact, water from the Colorado River has been pumped directly into the Salton Sea. But that provision expires at the end of 2017, with the sea predicted to recede at an ever faster pace.

The risk to Southern California, Kaye said, "is mounting and well-documented."

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