Wade Crowfoot, California’s new secretary of Natural Resources, remembers the first time he saw the Salton Sea. He was in his early 30s, headed south to visit his cousin in El Centro, when he saw “this huge body of water next to this stunning, stark landscape, with great mountains to the west. It captivated me.” Jeff Geraci’s impressions of California’s largest inland water body are quite different. For 14 years, as the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s senior environmental scientist, he’s coordinated Salton Sea inspections. “The sea is a repository for sewage, industrial and slaughterhouse discharges and agricultural wastewater,” he wrote in an email, describing wading through rotting fish and partially dissolved bird carcasses, all while pesticide-tainted water still pours in.
A major Southern California water purveyor paved the way Tuesday for a massive restoration project at the Salton Sea in an attempt to stave off ecological devastation and an unfolding public health disaster. The Imperial Irrigation District, which serves the Imperial Valley in southeastern Southern California, approved an easement agreement with the state on Tuesday that allows the state to begin a critical restoration project at the Salton Sea.
The San Diego County Water Authority today praised Gov. Gavin Newsom for taking a proactive, far-sighted approach to water supply planning for California, and pledged to help the governor advance his portfolio strategy for water security in the face of a changing climate.
In a letter to Newsom, Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer thanked the governor for the “wisdom and leadership” shown last week with the issuance of Executive Order N-10-19 and invited the governor to tour San Diego County’s cutting-edge water facilities.
Newsom’s order directed his administration to “identify and assess a suite of complementary actions to ensure safe and resilient water supplies, flood protection and healthy waterways for the state’s communities, economy and environment.” Newsom then directed state agencies to scrap Brown Administration plans for a $18 billion two-tunnel system for moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta in favor of a one-tunnel system.
“We congratulate you on Executive Order N-10-19 and stand ready to support you and work with other stakeholders to ensure its success,” Madaffer wrote to Newsom. “If state and federal dollars are prioritized to support local, integrated planning solutions, we will realize the State’s 2009 promise to reduce demand on the Bay-Delta.”
Portfolio Planning For Water Security
The Water Authority has a long history of both portfolio planning for the region’s water security and supporting a portfolio approach to address mounting environmental and water supply challenges in the Bay-Delta, the hub of the State Water Project.
“Almost two decades ago, the Water Authority’s Board of Directors chose to take affirmative steps to change what had been an ‘end-of-the-pipeline’ mentality, when our agency relied greatly on water imported from the Bay-Delta,” Madaffer said. “In other words, we embraced then the intent of Executive Order N-10-19, and believe our experience is proof that it can be done.”
In 2013, the Water Authority joined several Southern and Northern California water districts, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation groups in proposing a Portfolio Alternative for the Bay-Delta. That proposal included a single tunnel, increasing water storage south of the Bay-Delta, and significant investments in local and regional water supplies.
That approach didn’t gain enough support in the Brown administration, but it aligns closely with Gov. Newsom’s executive order.
The portfolio approach also aligns with what history has shown to be a highly successful strategy in San Diego County, which relied almost entirely on water supplies controlled by external interests in 1991.
“After suffering the devastating impacts of drought and water shortages that year, our community got to work, determined to gain local control over the cost and reliability of our water,” Madaffer said. “Since then, the Water Authority and its member agencies have invested over $2 billion in local projects.”
Those investments include:
- The nation’s largest agricultural water conservation and transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District
- The first new dam in the county in more than 50 years at Olivenhain Reservoir
- The nation’s largest seawater desalination plant, producing up to 56,000 acre-feet of water annually
- The raising of San Vicente Dam, more than doubling its capacity
- Water-use efficiency programs that have helped reduce per capita potable water use by more than 40 percent in San Diego County
“Every dollar of investment the Water Authority has made represents a commensurate reduction of take on the Bay-Delta,” said Madaffer’s letter.
He noted that the Water Authority and its member agencies are still at work, with more local projects on the drawing board, including a Pure Water potable reuse program being developed by the City of San Diego and the East County Advanced Water Purification Project.
“We are also continuing to plan for the future, with an upcoming study that will explore water, conveyance, storage, treatment and energy opportunities with strategic partners in Imperial Valley, Mexico and across the Southwest,” Madaffer said. “This initiative is the next generation of the Water Authority’s evolution, and the ‘poster child’ for your Portfolio Alternative.”
The Water Authority is looking at new integrated solutions such as a storage account in Lake Mead that would help raise water levels in the drought-stressed reservoir and avoid formal shortage conditions that could hamper water deliveries across the Southwest. The Water Authority also is supporting a Salton Sea action plan that will protect both the environment and public health; binational opportunities with Mexico; and clean energy generation.
With the clock ticking, a major hurdle to restoring the southern edge of the fast-drying Salton Sea may finally be overcome. Imperial Irrigation District general manager Henry Martinez told the Desert Sun that he and California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot have reached an agreement in principle that the state — not the water district — will be responsible for construction and maintenance of more than 3,700 acres of wetlands aimed at controlling toxic dust and restoring wildlife habitat. In exchange, the water district will sign easements for access onto lands it owns that border California’s largest lake. The agreement could break a years-long impasse and find ways to get restoration projects moving.
A new report paints a grim future for birds that rely on the Salton Sea habitat. Audubon California-released report uses bird-monitoring data from several different sources to show just how the destruction of the Salton Sea ecological habitat has decimated the populations of both pelicans and cormorants endemic to the area. As the Salton Sea recedes, the body of water’s salinity increases, which kills off its tilapia population. Without tilapia, the birds starve.
Geraci proposes we forget about the birds and salinity of the Salton Sea and concentrate “limited resources” on human-related mitigation to the sea’s decline. He finds much fault with the state’s 10-year Plan commitment to 50 percent of the acreage mitigated being aquatic, which he contends is 20 times as expensive as playa mitigation accomplished done by planting. Perhaps it was a mistake to fund the sea’s restoration under the Fish and Game Department, but that is the vehicle.
Massive fish-die offs. Dead birds. A toxic stench. Bryan Mendez and Olivia Rodriguez are dissatisfied that those sad facts are the only things most Californians ever hear about the Salton Sea, one of the largest inland seas in the world. “We’ve heard on and on about the birds, the fish, they’re dying. We know that,” says Rodriguez. “How do we transform this narrative, to show there’s also a community of people here?”
Throwing away millions of taxpayer dollars to re-purpose contaminated waste for creating toxic retention ponds disguised as “habitat,” in the middle of a desert waste sump, is not good logic. At its core, the ill-advised attempt to “restore” the Salton Sea is nothing short of environmental malpractice. It will inevitably fail at a very high cost to both wildlife and taxpayers, succeeding only in perpetuating a hazardous condition. Activists have been peddling the backward notion that Salton Sea is polluted and therefore needs to be “saved,” in large part because birds are threatened. The reality: Birds are in peril because the Salton Sea exists.
I agree with the March 29 editorial that projects to cover the shrinking Salton Sea’s exposed shoreline are desperately needed to prevent an environmental and public health crisis.In the recent farm bill, I secured provisions that made the Salton Sea eligible for Department of Agriculture conservation funding for the first time. We’re now working with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to make additional funds available as quickly as possible to support conservation efforts at the Salton Sea. Addressing the Salton Sea’s shoreline problems is only one step needed to improve environmental conditions for Imperial County residents.
The March 26 opinion piece by Tom Buschatzke and 13 other Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan proponents to persuade the public that the DCP is good for the Salton Sea would have been better served – and made more believable – by a show of good faith rather than a show of force. People who know the Salton Sea as an actual place, rather than a place on a map, can tell the difference. That Buschatzke and his fellow river contractors would be defiantly for a plan that turns the Salton Sea into its first casualty is sad but unsurprising. For them, the Salton Sea was the final impediment on the road to the DCP, not the finish line.