Op-Ed

Where’s the money and the plan that will save the Salton Sea?

After more than a decade of frustrating fits and starts, it appears the Salton Sea may yet be saved. In July, California budgeted $80.5 million to build canals and artificial wetlands along the lake’s receding shoreline, and in September, the federal government announced a $30-million commitment to expedite those sustainability projects. The funding is crucial, but so is the symbolism: Both announcements tacitly acknowledged what Sacramento and Washington have for too long ignored: California’s largest lake faces intractable issues that only a massive joint state and federal effort can address.

The Salton Sea — 45 miles long, 15 miles wide in the southeast corner of the state — is an important stopover for millions of birds along the Pacific Flyway. It’s been receding for years through evaporation and reduced runoff from agricultural fields, making headlines when millions of tilapia die off or when dust from the dry lake bed poisons the air in Imperial County.

A looming 2018 deadline could finish the lake. That’s when the Colorado River water that has kept the sea alive will instead start flowing to San Diego via a controversial rural-urban water-transfer deal struck in 2003. According to the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank in Oakland, without large-scale intervention, by 2030 the Salton Sea will further shrivel by 60%. The cost to property values, public health and wildlife habitat could be as high as $70 billion.

The 11th hour funding announced by Gov. Jerry Brown and President Obama in July and September is meant to stave off this slow moving train wreck, but it is only a small part of the enormous cost of preserving even a remnant of the lake. The price for the state’s comprehensive Salton Sea Management Program — still being drafted and scheduled for release by the end of the year — is estimated at more than $3 billion. It’s not clear where the rest of the money will come from.

Sacramento and Washington will need to be creative and aggressive to get the job done. The California Legislature would be wise to approve a bond measure proposed by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) for the 2018 ballot that would funnel $25 million to the sea. The U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers are already involved but will need to invest even more in the lake’s survival.

One nonprofit, the Water Funder Initiative, just set a goal of providing $10 million to support Salton Sea restoration, and other philanthropic groups should follow its lead. And maybe the Coachella Music and Art Festival could lend its neighborhood lake some celebrity star power. (Back in the ’90s, the Salton Sea benefited from Sonny Bono’s sponsorship, when he represented the region in Congress.)

Government agencies and environmental groups have touted fees from future lakeside geothermal energy development as a silver-bullet solution. But a report this summer from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tempered those hopes. Researchers found new geothermal plants could generate up to $1.5 billion by 2030, far less than the $4 billion projected two years ago. And even that is contingent upon best-case technological and political scenarios panning out. Still, geothermal could add to the sea’s funding patchwork (and it would help the state meet its 50% clean energy target). 

In addition to scraping more money together, Sacramento must deliver a clear road map for preserving the lake. In 2003, in order to cement the rural-urban water deal, the state promised to do what was necessary to save the Salton Sea.

There have been glimmers of progress. Last fall, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife restoration project got under way at Red Hill Bay in the federal Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge at the lake. It will transform 420 acres of dried-out landscape into shorebird habitat again, and it is already fully funded, leaving the $30 million promised by Washington in September for other projects.

At about the same time the feds went to work at Red Hill Bay, Brown signed a law that mandates the restoration of up to 12,000 acres of exposed lake bed by 2020 (the $80.5 million he set aside in the summer is a down payment on the mandate).

However, even if all pending restoration projects go forward (most haven’t broken ground) only 3,000 acres of dry lake bed would be reclaimed by 2020. A greater sense of urgency is needed if even the most modest of goals is to be met.

At the same time, expectations have to be managed. Some residents in the Imperial Valley are hoping “restoration” will mean a return to the Salton Sea’s glory days of the 1950s and ’60s, when hotels and marinas ringed the shores, and speedboat races drew crowds by the thousands. But the 2003 water transfer, along with California’s hotter, drier future, mean a restored Salton Sea is necessarily a more modest Salton Sea. Blue-sky proposals have been pitched — for instance, pumping water from the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez to refill the sea — but such machinations would take more decades and more billions, if they’re even possible. Even considering them wastes time and money the lake doesn’t have.

As troubled and complicated as California’s desert sea may be, it also offers a real opportunity for public good. A smaller, sustainable lake is within state and federal power, depending on the wisdom of the forthcoming management plan and the funding acumen of Sacramento and Washington. At this point, done is better than perfect. Time is no friend to the Salton Sea.

Tyler Hayden, news editor at the Santa Barbara Independent, last wrote about the Salton Sea for the summer 2016 issue of Audubon magazine. @TylerHayden1

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