The Imperial Irrigation District has been using its clout as the agency with the biggest water entitlement along the Colorado River to press for California officials to live up to their commitment that they will keep the Salton Sea from turning into an environmental disaster.
During the past year, IID has warned the state that without a credible, well-funded “road map” to restore deteriorating shoreline habitats and cover up growing stretches of dust-spewing lakebed, the district won’t take part in a proposed deal to use less water from the dwindling Colorado River. And on top of that, the agency has warned, the nation’s biggest farmland-to-city water transfer deal could be in jeopardy if the state doesn’t urgently pursue fixes at the Salton Sea.
Now, however, negotiations appear to be progressing toward a consensus that would satisfy the district’s demands and win its support.
Kevin Kelley, the IID’s general manager, said the district has worked together with Imperial County and the San Diego County Water Authority to reach a consensus position on what they want to see, and they’ve presented a proposal to state officials as part of ongoing negotiations.
Kelley said the agencies want the State Water Resources Control Board to approve an order that would lock in a commitment to carry out and fund the state’s 10-year plan for the Salton Sea, which calls for building thousands of acres of ponds and wetlands around the shrinking lake. He said this type of order would bring “durability” and specific milestones to hold the state accountable long after Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office.
“It gives us a road map that we can have some confidence in, recognizing that this governor won’t be in office for the entire 10 years, there’ll be a change in the makeup of the Legislature, but this problem will continue,” Kelley said.
He said the agencies aren’t calling for additional projects or funding, but simply want to see the state be bound to follow through on the work schedule laid out in the $383 million plan – for which only $80.5 million has been approved so far.
“We’re not allowing the perfect to stand in the way of the good: A 10-year road map that enables everyone to go forward and perform at the Salton Sea is better than what we have today,” Kelley said.
What the agencies are asking for doesn’t represent everything they’ve wanted, he said, “but I think that it would give us some confidence that this 10-year plan is durable enough to go forward with.”
READ THE SERIES: California’s Dying Sea
The agencies sent their proposal to the state on June 27. They declined to release the document, saying it’s part of ongoing negotiations, and described their proposals in broad terms without revealing specifics.
Bruce Wilcox, the state’s assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, said he thinks it’s a good sign that the three agencies are cooperating on their proposal and that it shows a new level of consensus.
“This is the first time that everyone has been pretty much on board with a plan moving forward,” Wilcox said. “There’s always some minor details to be worked out, but I think that’s positive.”
Dust and vanishing birds
The California Natural Resources Agency released its plan for the Salton Sea in March. The blueprint calls for building a patchwork of ponds and wetlands along the lake’s retreating shorelines during the next 10 years to cover growing expanses of dusty lakebed and to create habitat for fish and birds.
If those ponds and wetlands are fully built, they would cover up 29,800 acres by 2028 – less than half of the more than 60,000 acres of dry lakebed that will be left exposed over the next 10 years.
People in communities around the lake already suffer from high asthma rates, and the problem is likely to get much worse in the coming years as growing expanses of dry lakebed send bigger clouds of fine dust into the air.
The Salton Sea was formed between 1905 and 1907, when floodwaters from the Colorado River burst through canals and filled the low-lying basin in the desert known as the Salton Sink, covering an ancient lakebed.
Since then, the lake has been sustained by water running off farmland in the Imperial Valley. But the lake has been shrinking for years as the amounts of water flowing into it have decreased, and growing strains on the Colorado River are pushing the lake toward a drier future.
The lake, which has no outlet and is already saltier than the ocean, has been getting progressively saltier and regularly gives off a stench resembling rotten eggs. The remaining fish appear to be disappearing and bird populations have been crashing.
The Salton Sea is about to start shrinking more rapidly next year under a 2003 water transfer deal, which is sending increasing amounts of water away from the Imperial Valley to urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.
The agreement called for the Imperial district to send “mitigation water” from its canals into the sea through 2017 – a period intended to give state agencies time to prepare for dealing with the effects. At the end of this year, that flow of water will be cut off and the lake’s shorelines will retreat more rapidly.
Over the next 30 years, the sea is projected to shrink by a third.
Ralph Cordova, Imperial County’s executive officer, said a central, longstanding demand is that people in the area shouldn’t have to bear a burden as a result of the water transfers. He said the county wants to make sure there is “enforceability” so that if state officials fail to follow through on their plan, there are ways of holding the state accountable.
“It’s a nice plan, but if they don’t do what they say they’re going to do in the plan, what then?” Cordova said.
In 2014, the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County filed a petition before the State Water Board demanding state action at the Salton Sea after years of delays and unfulfilled plans.
Kelley has called the Salton Sea a “ticking time bomb” that could have far-reaching impacts.
In November, IID’s leaders demanded the state present a credible “road map” and said they would only be able to participate in a drought deal for the Colorado River once there is a viable Salton Sea plan. Under the proposed Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, water districts in California, Arizona and Nevada would temporarily take less water from the overallocated river to boost Lake Mead – which has fallen to record low levels – in an effort to avert severe water shortages.
IID’s participation is crucial for the proposed agreement, and if the district eventually says it’s satisfied with California’s efforts at the Salton Sea, that could clear the way for the larger deal on the Colorado River, which provides water for nearly 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland.
Kelley said state officials and IID representatives have agreed in their discussions on the Salton Sea that “such an order by the state board would be a prerequisite to IID’s participation in a Drought Contingency Plan,” which California officials want to see finalized.
In March, IID and Imperial County filed a motion with the State Water Board requesting a hearing on the Salton Sea and asking the board to order the completion of a final plan by Oct. 1. That hearing has been delayed as negotiations have progressed.
Kelley said the agencies want to see the state’s plan be fully funded and they also want assurance that the State Water Board will continue to have authority over the plan for the entire 10-year period.
“A 10-year plan absent a water order would not be sufficient, and the elements that have gone into this consensus position on the part of the three agencies represent not only progress but commitment,” Kelley said. “This represents real progress and a going-forward plan that we can believe in.”
The three agencies are waiting for a response from state officials.
“At the end of the day, what we really want to see – I think what everyone wants to see – is projects built on the ground,” Kelley said.
State officials have yet to decide on long-term fixes. They say they’re considering options that include piping in and desalinating water from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and building a “perimeter lake” that would stretch more than 60 miles around much of the Salton Sea.
In the meantime, their first priority is to use the $80.5 million that’s available to start designing and building canals and ponds along portions of the shore.
The state’s plan also contemplates the development of more geothermal energy plants near the Salton Sea’s south shore, where one of the planet’s most powerful geothermal zones runs along the San Andreas Fault. There are now 11 geothermal power plants in the area, and the state’s plan requires that canals and ponds be built to ensure access to areas where new plants could be built.
As IID and other agencies negotiate with state officials, environmental groups have told the state they don’t want to be left out of the process. In a June 16 letter to the State Water Board, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Audubon Society asked to participate in any talks on drafting a state order.
The groups were parties to a previous 2002 order under which the state board required IID to deliver “mitigation water” to the Salton Sea for 15 years.
Sarah Friedman, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club, said the groups “want a process that’s open and transparent and has all parties in it.”
“Ultimately we’re just trying to put the state and the parties on notice that we are also parties and we also have interests,” Friedman said. “We really just need to see greater action and commitment to averting this massive ecological and human health disaster.”
Lawmakers pushing bills
The state’s efforts would get a boost under a package of bills that are advancing through the Legislature. The bills, SB 615 and SB 701, would enshrine the 10-year plan in state law and establish a $500 million bond measure, which would go before voters next year and would pay for projects at the Salton Sea.
The bills were authored by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, and Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and were approved last week by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, which Garcia chairs. The bills are slated to go before the Appropriations Committee and then to the full Assembly.
Garcia also incorporated $30 million for the Salton Sea in AB 18, a proposed bond measure for parks.
“We’ll be in a better place,” Garcia said, “if these get on the ballot and approved by the voters and we’re able to fund the entire 10-year plan.”
Hueso, who visited the Imperial Valley on June 30 with Garcia and other state officials, said it will be important to get the $500 bond measure on the ballot.
“It’s going to be very difficult to explain to Californians why it’s an urgent need, but we’re going to work very hard to do that,” Hueso said.
Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said he’s pleased to see the bills moving forward in the Legislature.
“It seems like there’s great momentum,” Perez said. “I think that we’ve been advancing the work over the last few years more so than over the course of the last 20 years.”
Perez, who previously served in the state Assembly, said one of the problems in the past was that at the local level, “we weren’t as united as we needed to be.”
That has changed in the past few years, and Perez said demonstrating a “united front” will help in pushing for solutions as the Salton Sea shrinks.
Negotiations toward a Salton Sea Consensus Are Progressing, Water Agency Says, by Ian James, The Desert Sun, July 10, 2017.