The last thing on Sacramento's mind in the midst of the state's epic drought may be the distant Salton Sea and the prospect of spending money or water to prevent the briny lake from going dry. But if it does dry up — and it will, quickly, beginning just over a year from now when water that temporarily replenishes it is cut off — winds are expected to scrape the exposed lake bed and blow toxic dust through Imperial County, the Coachella Valley and perhaps farther north. It would be like the dust storms that plagued the Owens Valley for decades after Los Angeles dried up Owens Lake, but on a much larger scale and affecting the health of many more people.
There was reason for optimism a month ago when Gov. Jerry Brown created the position of assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy and appointed Bruce Wilcox, the well-regarded environmental manager for the Imperial Irrigation District, to the job. The news demonstrated some late but very welcome commitment to solving the problem.
But the appointment has not been followed by a timetable or any funding to allow construction of the ponds and other projects that Wilcox has proposed for controlling dust and retaining wildlife habitat.
That's especially irksome to the irrigation district, which agreed in 2003 to cut back on its formerly unquenchable thirst for Colorado River water in order to supply water to San Diego and other cities. But by watering Imperial Valley fields less, farmers produced less runoff to sustain the sea, so the historic agreement was premised on the state providing enough money to prevent the environmental and public health calamity inherent in the sea's demise.
With no immediate prospect of funding for the sea, the district is now threatening to back out of the agreement. That might not sound like a particularly constructive action. But it may be the only leverage left to the district and the farms it serves, all neighbors of the massive, briny — and shrinking — lake.
Water-transfer agreements of the kind created 12 years ago among urban water agencies and the Imperial Irrigation District will be important tools for managing California's scarce water in coming decades. It's therefore crucial that the state act to prevent this pact from being scuttled. The Salton Sea will be smaller but, with funding, it could be safe, sustainable and productive, while remaining an integral part of a model water transfer.