State lists 10 options to save a downsized Salton Sea for migrating birds, human use

Times Staff Writer

State officials have released 10 proposals that could prevent the polluted Salton Sea, an internationally recognized stopping point for migratory birds, from turning into a brackish expanse of mud ringed by a choking dust bowl.

The lake, California’s largest at 360 square miles, will lose nearly half of its imported water flows beginning in 2017 because of a state and federal agreement to transfer the water to fast-growing urban areas.

The 10 proposals outlined in the draft environmental impact report include a variety of dams, dikes and smaller lakes, at costs ranging from $2.3 billion to $5.9 billion in public funds. All the proposals aim to protect wildlife and air quality as the lake shrinks.

The Salton Sea, once a popular fishing destination, has suffered for years from fish die-offs, odor issues and other problems. It straddles Imperial and Riverside counties.


The report contains no preferred option, and state officials said they would not meet a year-end deadline mandated by the state Legislature to make a choice. But they insisted it was more important that the numerous and divergent groups that want to save the lake have enough time to reach consensus.

“I don’t want to make excuses, but I don’t think anybody realized what a massive undertaking this was going to be,” said Dale Hoffman-Floerke, project manager and chief of the Colorado and Salton Sea office for the California Department of Water Resources. She said the plans would move forward and that a final plan would be presented to the Legislature about April.

“There is no intention to slack off,” she said.

Tribal officials, farmers, the geothermal industry, local officials and environmentalists would all be affected by efforts to clean up the lake and need to agree on the solution so government funding can be secured, Hoffman-Floerke said.


Proposition 84 on the Nov. 7 ballot would include $47 million for restoration of the lake, and millions more could be allocated from other bond funding.

The options evaluated in the 3,000-page report vary widely, including: minimal repair of shoreline habitat and new plantings to reduce dust storms as the lakebed is exposed; concentric rings of deep water preserved around a large briny area; and building a variety of dams and berms to create new lakes, both large and small.

Rick Daniels, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, which is pushing for an ambitious 175-square-mile lake, said that alternative was the only one that would generate private revenue for restoration -- an estimated $500 million to $1 billion over decades as shoreline resorts, homes and other projects are built.

Environmentalists were not thrilled with any of the options but said it was possible to take the best pieces of each and come up with yet another plan to protect species and public health, while maintaining some recreation. They said they would agree to a 15-square-mile lake to satisfy boaters and the authority.


“To re-create the sea as it was in the 1950s is probably not possible, but a more modest proposal is possible and feasible,” said Julia Levin of Audubon California.

State and local officials are also moving to restore smaller slices of habitat before considering any of the long-term options, to support more than 400 species of wading and migratory birds that use the lake.

The lake, created in 1905 when floodwaters broke through a Colorado River irrigation canal, exists because Imperial Valley farmers have pumped 1.2 million acre-feet of runoff into it annually. Salinity from river water, selenium in the lake bed and algae blooms from farm runoff all contribute to the sea’s “rotten egg” smell, huge fish die-offs and other problems.

“To be upfront, I don’t think we will ever totally solve all the water quality issues ... or eliminate all the odors,” Hoffman-Floerke said.


“It will never be turned into Lake Tahoe, but we will be restoring ecological values that don’t exacerbate air quality and do protect wildlife.”

Copies of the report are available at