Salton sea faces catastrophic future, toxic dust storms, officials say

Community activists, politicians and water officials from the Imperial and Coachella valleys went to the state water board in Sacramento six months ago with a plea: Avoid a "looming catastrophe" at the Salton Sea.

The message was stark: after 2017, the lake "falls off a cliff environmentally." Toxic dust storms will increase markedly, and so will the chances of a rotten egg smell routinely wafting over much of coastal Southern California.

Lack of action will have a devastating impact on the public health and economy of the region, the board was told.

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Two weeks ago, two top officials from the Imperial Valley returned to the water board to complain that virtually nothing has been done.

"We are all six months closer to that cliff where we all will hold hands and jump off together," Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, told the board.

With the state gripped in drought, the task of getting attention for the Salton Sea has become daunting, some might say impossible.

Even in the best of times, it has been difficult to develop much of a constituency in Sacramento for the Salton Sea, an unnatural body of water in a remote, politically marginal part of California. The problems of Lake Tahoe, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and the San Francisco Bay are more visible and immediate.

In the last six months, "not much has been done," said Ralph Cordova, the chief administrative officer of Imperial County.

Like Kelley, Cordova hoped the water board would pledge to act as a "referee and timekeeper" to spur local, state and federal agencies into action, and maybe prod the Legislature to fulfill a promise made in 2003 to fix the Salton Sea.

Frances Spivy-Weber, acting as chairwoman of the meeting, offered sympathy but no promises, except that she would mention the Salton Sea to the state's drought task force.

"I hear what you're saying,'' she said. "And I think you're right to be pushing."

The next day, back in his office at Imperial Irrigation District headquarters, Kelley admitted his frustration.

"We had expected a lot more in terms of more engagement" by the state, Kelley said.

Disappointment at state lethargy is common in the Imperial Valley.

In 2003, when the state and federal government twisted the arms of Imperial Valley farmers to sell a massive amount of water to San Diego, the state promised to repair damage done to the Salton Sea.

It has never fulfilled its promise.

The 45-year water deal is billed as the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation. To sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority, farmers are paid to not plant crops; each year thousands of acres are left fallow.

With less water used for irrigation, that means less runoff into the Salton Sea. To compensate, the agreement requires the Imperial Irrigation District to pump water from the Colorado River directly into the lake — water that farmers might otherwise use to irrigate their cash crops.

That requirement lapses at the end of 2017.

The lake, which is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, straddling Imperial and Riverside counties, serves as a sump for pesticide-laden irrigation runoff. It has been shrinking in recent years, even with the fresh water infusion. As the lake shrinks, thousands of acres that been underwater become exposed to the air.

Dust storms carry fine particles over a wide area. Child asthma and emergency room rates in the region are among the highest in the state. For complex reasons, the sea's shrinkage is outpacing predictions.

"The fact is that the shoreline is receding dramatically," Kelley told the water board.

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In September, the state named Bruce Wilcox, an Imperial Irrigation District employee, as assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is expected to create a similar position in coming weeks.

Wilcox's position comes with no staff, no budget and no clear authority, only a vague mission to cajole various public agencies into tackling the multibillion-dollar problem. The authority of the Bureau of Reclamation job is still being discussed.

One of Wilcox's first chores will be to oversee a $3.5-million project to restore 420 acres of Red Hill Bay on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea, part of the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge.

Not that long ago, the area was hip deep in water. Now the sea has receded more than a mile and the area has an eerie moonscape appearance.

Families who live downwind from the Salton Sea have learned to keep their children inside during "wind events" that cause blinding white-out conditions.

"It's like the snowstorms I remember in Wisconsin," Wilcox said as he took a handful of the white, powdery substance. "It burns your eyes and your throat."

The Red Hill Bay restoration project will involve creating berms and diverting water from the nearby Alamo River. Admittedly, the project is environmental triage but Wilcox hopes it will show officials and legislators that it is possible to reverse the deterioration of the lake.

In 2007, a plan by state water technocrats to save the lake was forwarded to the Legislature with a price tag of $8.9 billion. It was dead on arrival.

Wilcox was a major author of a revised plan unveiled in July for a smaller but more sustainable Salton Sea. Proposed pricetag: $3.15 billion.

"I read your plan," Spivy-Weber told Kelley and Cordova. "It's quite impressive."

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Last week, the Little Hoover Commission, the state's official watchdog, called for immediate action at the Salton Sea using funds from the Proposition 1 water bond approved last year by voters. "The state has studied this subject long enough," said commission Vice Chairman Loren Kaye. "Now is the time for action."

A year ago, the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank, sounded a similar note of alarm about the lake, making the same points as the commission.

In its report funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the institute estimated the damage to public health, property values, agricultural production, recreational assets and the environment at $29 billion to $70 billion over 30 years.

Michael Cohen, senior associate at the institute, holds out hope that the appointment of Wilcox — whom he described as "a very knowledgeable and action-oriented leader" — may represent a turning point.

"Now, after more than 50 years of studies and meetings, the future of the Salton Sea may offer some glimmers of hope," Cohen wrote for National Geographic's website.

"The amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea will soon decrease dramatically, with rapid and catastrophic consequences," Cohen wrote. "Fish will die out. Birds will lose their food source. The lake will shrink and the exposed lake bed will emit large amounts of disease-causing dust unless action is taken quickly."

The next several months will determine whether hope can be converted to reality, Cohen wrote.

In the Imperial Valley, such hope is tempered by years of frustration and a concern that the state will shift the cost of a Salton Sea project to local taxpayers. It is widely noted that Gov. Jerry Brown, who has led the drought initiative and embraced other water issues, has yet to address the Salton Sea's problems.

The state needs "to inject a sense of urgency into the process and keep it from bogging down even further," Kelley said. "So far, that hasn't happened."

tony.perry@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATsandiego

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