The Salton Sea is a disaster in slow motion...
For more than a century, California’s largest lake has been sustained by Colorado River water, which irrigates Imperial Valley farms and drains into the lake. But the Salton Sea will start shrinking rapidly at the end of this year, when increasing amounts of river water will be diverted from farms to cities. As the lake’s shorelines retreat, thousands of tons of lung-damaging dust are expected to blow from the exposed lakebed, polluting the Imperial Valley’s already-dirty air.
Read 15 more stories: In this series, The Desert Sun investigates the crisis of the shrinking Salton Sea, from its worsening dust storms to its disappearing birds. The lake is becoming a toxic dust bowl — nearly 15 years after California lawmakers promised to fix it.
State officials have done little to protect the region’s vulnerable residents from the impending health emergency — even though they’ve known this crisis was coming for nearly 15 years.
California’s latest Salton Sea plan calls for building thousands of acres of ponds and wetlands over the next 10 years to cover growing expanses of dry lakebed and to create habitat for fish and birds. But the 10-year plan remains severely underfunded by the state Legislature and will cover less than half of the dry lakebed that researchers say will be exposed a decade from now.
Ruben Dominguez, who lives near the lake’s southern shore in Calipatria, is frustrated with government officials who’ve talked about revitalizing the Salton Sea for years but have yet to start controlling the dust. His 16-year-old daughter has asthma and stays indoors when it’s windy. He often sees brown clouds drift from the shore into his neighborhood.
“Everybody knows it’s getting worse, but nothing’s getting done,” Dominguez said. “People in Sacramento, they have no idea what we go through over here. They’re not breathing in this air.”
California lawmakers promised to fix the Salton Sea in 2003, after demanding the farm-to-city water transfers that created the crisis. But so far, the state hasn’t lived up to that promise.
Imperial County has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California, and the county’s 180,000 residents will suffer even more when the water transfers accelerate in 2018. They’re not the only ones at risk. Windblown dust and the rotten-egg stench that occasionally waft from the lake also affect the Coachella Valley, threatening a $5-billion tourism industry. And if California doesn’t live up to its promise to restore the lake, the Imperial Irrigation District could torpedo negotiations over the future of the Colorado River, increasing the odds of unprecedented shortages along a river that provides water to nearly 40 million people.
California’s 10-year plan for the Salton Sea, released in March, would begin to address the lake’s problems — if it’s fully funded. For now, officials are struggling to come up with $383 million, the estimated price tag. That’s enormously frustrating for Salton Sea advocates, who say the state should have stepped up with solutions, and funding, a decade ago. In recent years, California has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for water projects in other parts of the state.
“We’re sadly expecting a bunch of people to get sick, unless the efforts get ramped up even more,” said Kerry Morrison, who lives in Salton City, along the lake’s western shore, and runs the environmental nonprofit EcoMedia Compass.
“We’re not trying to knock the state’s efforts,” Morrison added. “But it needs to be taken more seriously in high government, and they need to realize there’s a lot of people at stake here.”
‘Triage’ for the Salton Sea
The state’s 10-year plan calls for the construction of a patchwork of ponds and wetlands along the lake’s receding shorelines — approximately 29,800 acres of “constructed habitat” between 2018 and 2028. That’s a significant number, but less than half of the lakebed that researchers estimate will have been exposed by then — at least 60,000 acres, or almost 100 square miles.
The construction will be concentrated along the lake’s northern and southern shores, near the rivers that bring farm runoff and wastewater. Some water from the lake, which is saltier than the ocean and growing progressively saltier, will be pumped to the ponds and mixed with the agricultural runoff to create habitat for fish and birds that’s less salty than the shrinking lake.
The plan doesn’t include any ponds or wetlands along the lake’s eastern and western shores, leaving communities like Bombay Beach and Salton City totally exposed to dry lakebed.
State officials know their strategy leaves a lot to be desired. But after years of failing to secure funding for more expensive fixes, they’ve dialed back their ambitions in hopes of rallying around a plan cheap enough for the Legislature to fund.
“Conditions are dire and we have to do something now for habitat, and we have to do something now for dust suppression,” said Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency, who led the development of the 10-year blueprint. “This plan is a path forward to address air quality and habitat issues at the Salton Sea.”
Supporters say the state’s plan will limit hazardous air pollution, throw a partial lifeline to fish and birds and build support for future spending. Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife, described the plan as “triage” for the Salton Sea, saying it would make a dent in the immediate crisis and hopefully create momentum toward longer-term solutions.
Phil Rosentrater, the Salton Sea Authority’s executive director, made a similar point.
“It certainly is not everything we want … but I want to be careful not to denigrate or complain about what we don’t have, when we actually do have something we can work with,” he said.
State officials thought they had developed a workable plan a decade ago, too.
In 2007, state officials released an $8.9-billion proposal that was far more ambitious than the current strategy. It would have involved building a horseshoe-shaped outer lake, a berm crossing the center of the lake and an extensive system of dikes, channels and pumps. But state lawmakers balked at the cost.
The new 10-year plan is also less ambitious than a scaled-down 2015 proposal from the Salton Sea Authority, which called for the construction of a 36-square-mile “perimeter lake” around the shrinking, increasingly salty center lake. The authority pegged that plan at just under $1 billion. Also in 2015, the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County proposed to build wetlands and new geothermal plants at the south end of the lake, with an estimated cost of $3.15 billion.
But even those price tags proved too expensive for state officials to commit.
“When you put forward originally the $9 billion plan, or more recently a $1 billion plan, it becomes overwhelming for people,” Delfino said. “They freeze, almost like a deer in the headlights. They can’t wrap their heads around it.”
A long way from Sacramento
For a scaled-back plan with a low price tag meant to be a main selling point, it’s still far from clear that Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers will come through with $383 million to fund the 10-year plan.
The state has budgeted just $80.5 million for the Salton Sea so far, leaving a $300 million shortfall. The initial funding, which comes from a $7.5 billion water bond approved by voters, will go toward paying consultants and designing and building canals and ponds along the shore.
Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, and Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, have led the charge for more funding in Sacramento, writing bills to support the Salton Sea and urging their colleagues to join the cause.
Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, grew up in Palm Springs and used to go fishing at the lake. He said he’s made it a priority to secure funding for the state’s 10-year plan.
“You have the framework, you have some initial money available to start the process, and we’ve got the ability to help influence the next governor to make this a bigger priority,” said Hertzberg, who chairs the Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee.
But California’s top lawmakers have hesitated to show the same commitment, at least publicly.
Through a spokesperson, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, declined to be interviewed for this story, or to comment on funding for Salton Sea restoration. A spokesperson for Senate Leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, also turned down an interview request.
A spokesperson for Gov. Brown’s office deferred all questions about Salton Sea funding to the California Natural Resources Agency, which crafted the 10-year plan and has no control over whether or how it will be funded. In an email, a CNRA spokesperson said the agency is “committed to making investments to address air quality and improve habitat at the Salton Sea.”
Even Chad Mayes, whose Assembly district includes much of the Coachella Valley, declined an interview request through a spokesperson. Mayes, the Assembly’s Republican leader, said in an emailed statement: “It’s good to see the state finally moving forward to address this environmental and public health crisis in waiting. While this plan is a step in the right direction, there is a lot of work left to be done.”
In the meantime, California is spending big money on other regional water projects.
Just last year, Brown agreed to contribute as much as $250 million in water bond funding to demolishing four dams along the California-Oregon border, a project meant to restore the Klamath River ecosystem. Officials say the state has already spent $216 million planning and conducting environmental reviews for Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels, which in theory would make it easier to pump water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, near the Bay Area, without harming endangered fish. The tunnels are eventually expected to cost $16 billion.
Asked about the disparity between the sums being spent upstate and the difficulty securing funding at the Salton Sea, Ted Kowalski — director of the Walton Family Foundation's Colorado River initiative — expressed a common sentiment: “It’s a long way from the Salton Sea to Sacramento.”
Over millennia, the depression in the desert known as the Salton Sink has at times been dry and at times been a lake filled with water. The current lake was accidentally created between 1905 and 1907, when Colorado River water broke through irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley and flooded the basin, destroying a railroad line and submerging salt mines in the process.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Salton Sea flourished as a tourism mecca where people flocked for swimming, fishing, boating and waterskiing. In its heyday, the lake attracted more visitors annually than Yosemite — some 1.5 million people per year.
But the lakefront towns deteriorated after flooding in the 1970s. Boating and fishing waned as the lake grew saltier and water quality worsened. Over the last 20 years, the lake has been shrinking as farm runoff decreases and evaporation takes its toll.
The lake’s surface now sits at 233 feet below sea level. The ruins of crumbling docks stand along a receding shoreline, and winds churn up decay. The rotten-egg stench that’s become well known in the Imperial and Coachella valleys — and has occasionally reached as far as Los Angeles — stems from the decomposing algae, carcasses of dead fish and other debris that have accumulated in the sea.
Starting at the end of this year, the lake will shrink faster than ever.
Under a 2003 water transfer deal, the Imperial Irrigation District — which serves Imperial Valley farms — agreed to sell increasing amounts of its Colorado River water to cities in the Coachella Valley and San Diego County. Irrigation District officials were under immense pressure from the state and federal government to make the deal. But they also knew that less water flowing to Imperial Valley farms would mean less runoff flowing to the Salton Sea, causing it to shrink. If they were going to sacrifice some of their water to slake the thirst of growing cities, they needed a guarantee it wouldn’t lead to a health and environmental disaster.
Imperial County was ultimately able to extract a promise from state lawmakers. On Sept. 29, 2003, Gov. Gray Davis signed the Salton Sea Restoration Act, which said it was “the intent of the Legislature that the State of California undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the permanent protection of the wildlife dependent on that ecosystem.” Meanwhile, the water transfer deal called for the Imperial Irrigation District to replenish the Salton Sea with “mitigation water” directly from the Colorado River through the end of 2017, figuring that would give the state more than enough time to develop and fund a restoration plan for the lake.
But that still hasn’t happened.
This year, the Imperial Irrigation District is releasing the final flows of mitigation water to the lake. At the end of 2017, those flows will cease and the Salton Sea’s decline will accelerate.
To visualize what that change will mean, it helps to drive through a trailer park and down onto a section of dry shoreline, where tire tracks cut a path across the flat, crusty lakebed to the mouth of the Alamo River.
There, behind a lush thicket of desert plants, water the color of café mocha flows down the Alamo River channel into the Salton Sea. This river, filled with soil and fertilizers from farm fields, is the largest source of water flowing into the lake. Over the next few years, the river will dwindle and the shoreline will retreat rapidly.
The Salton Sea is now about 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. It’s projected to shrink during the next 30 years to about two-thirds of its current size.
The costs of inaction
In theory, investing $383 million into the Salton Sea — or even several billion — should be a no-brainer. While the costs of allowing the lake to keep shrinking are hard to quantify, the nonprofit Pacific Institute, a think tank, has estimated the damage could range from $29 billion to $70 billion over 30 years. Those estimates include higher healthcare costs from respiratory illnesses, lower property values and ecosystem damage. They don’t include reduced farm productivity from dust emissions, which Pacific Institute researchers characterized as too difficult to predict.
By those estimates, even the long-discarded $9 billion plan is a bargain.
Morrison noted that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has already been forced to spend at least $1.8 billion to suppress dust at Owens Lake, which was infamously drained to provide water for Los Angeles. The Salton Sea is three times the size of Owens Lake, and more than 10 times as many people could be affected.
“It’s going to cost the state a lot of money when they have to pull some emergency Owens Lake-style projects” at the Salton Sea, Morrison said.
Garcia, who represents the Imperial Valley and parts of the Coachella Valley in the state Assembly, is confident the Legislature will go a long way toward filling that gap.
In the Senate, Hueso has introduced the Salton Sea Obligations Act, which would authorize $500 million in bonds to fund Salton Sea restoration. The Senate approved the bond measure last month. If it clears the Assembly, it would require voter approval in the November 2018 election.
Garcia has proposed $30 million for the Salton Sea as part of his $3.1-billion park bond, which is moving through the Legislature and would also need to be approved by voters next year. Garcia said he’s trying to convince his colleagues that a bigger slice of the park bond money should go toward the Salton Sea. Meanwhile, a wider-ranging bond proposal in the Senate, from de León, contemplates $40 million for the Salton Sea. It’s expected the two bonds will be combined.
Garcia believes legislative leaders are committed to finding solutions. He noted that Rendon, the Assembly speaker, put the Salton Sea on the Democratic caucus’ to-do list at its strategic planning session in February. He also pointed out that several state Senators — including Hertzberg, Ben Allen, Toni Atkins and Henry Stern — attended a Salton Sea tour in March.
Those lawmakers and others, Garcia said, will be key to building support for additional funding.
“There are a lot of people that still have not completely, completely embraced this idea, and the cost. And the different numbers that have been put out there are somewhat frightening, if you want to talk about the $9 billion state plan, or the more recent $3 billion plan,” Garcia said. “This $380 million plan that focuses on ecosystems and public health — that feels more tangible.”
Regardless of what the Legislature does, some additional funding should become available. The federal Department of Agriculture has already approved $7.5 million in grants for projects that improve air quality, water quality or habitat on farmlands at the southern end of the lake. And the Water Funder Initiative, a nonprofit backed by several philanthropies, including the Walton Family Foundation, has pledged $10 million in Salton Sea funding over the next five years.
The federal government has also promised $30 million over the next decade, with then-President Barack Obama pledging last year to “reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late.” But it’s not yet clear whether the Trump administration will make good on the $30-million commitment. Nobody has said the money isn’t coming, but it hasn’t been allocated, either.
The $30 million from the federal government is supposed to cover operations and maintenance costs for the ponds and wetlands built over the next 10 years, Wilcox said. If the Trump administration doesn’t come through, the state will have to find another funding source for operations and maintenance, on top of the $300 million shortfall it already faces for construction.
The perfect and the good
Even if the 10-year plan is fully funded, implementing it won’t be easy.
Michael Cohen, a researcher with the Pacific Institute, pointed out that state and federal agencies don’t have a strong track record of getting Salton Sea projects built quickly. Existing wetlands projects have been slowed not only by a lack of funding, but also by tricky environmental permitting and complicated questions of land ownership and mineral leasing rights, Cohen said.
“One of the challenges is that a lot of these projects are being run out of Sacramento, but the conditions on the ground in the Imperial Valley are not quite what they expect,” Cohen said. “They really need to get projects in the ground much faster.”
The state has hired a consultant, Tetra Tech, Inc., to design the canals, ponds and wetlands contemplated in the 10-year plan. Construction is supposed to begin next year on a section of dry lakebed west of the mouth of the New River. Cohen is hopeful that Tetra Tech “will apply some real project management experience and skills to move some of these projects forward.”
“My hope is that in the next two months or three months, once the consultant really gets working on this, that they’ll come out with a better, more inspirational 10-year plan,” Cohen said.
Riverside County officials think they can do better than the state’s plan. They’re working to form an “enhanced infrastructure financing district” around the lake’s northern shore, which would take out loans and issue bonds to pay for Salton Sea restoration projects, then pay off those debts with the increased tax revenue that would theoretically be generated by revitalized lakeside communities. That revenue would include growth in property taxes, sales taxes and hotel taxes.
It’s hard to know whether that plan is realistic: It banks on a restoration program so successful that people, businesses and private capital flock to lakeside communities, with as many as 73,750 residential units built over the next half-century and more than one million hotel room rentals per year in Riverside County by the early 2040s. A study commissioned by the Salton Sea Authority found lakeside development could generate between $715 million and $2.2 billion for Salton Sea restoration projects, if Riverside and Imperial counties both establish financing districts.
Brian Nestande, Riverside County’s deputy executive officer, said he’s frustrated that the state’s plan doesn’t include detailed discussion of an infrastructure financing district, or the perimeter lake concept, which the county supports. He said the county is moving forward with its own plans, with a goal of building a “north lake” that promotes tourism and rebuilds ecosystems.
“We’re just going to make it a lot better. They’re going to do minimal, we’re going to do better than minimal,” Nestande said. “We’re going to do a deeper sea, so that more flocks of birds and fish can live there.”
Still, Nestande said he understands why the state is focused on a less-ambitious approach.
“I think it’s just simply money,” he said. “Here’s the sad reality: We’re in a (relatively) unpopulated area. You have one or two legislators that care, not too much else beyond that.”
State and local officials know the 10-year plan won’t fix everything, and they acknowledge they’d be trying to do more if they thought they could get more funding. But with the water cutoff coming at the end of 2017, they don’t want to let the perfect get in the way of the good.
“What you don’t want to get into is the paralysis of analysis, where you don’t do anything because you’re still analyzing the problem,” said Alex Schriener, a geologist who used to work on the Salton Sea geothermal field and now serves on the state’s Long Range Planning Committee. “We make a positive impact to the environment and to health and safety, and then, as more money and time becomes available, we can work on other solutions.”
The state’s strategy focuses on the next 10 years and does not include long-term fixes. One option that will be studied, Wilcox said, involves building a “perimeter lake” that would stretch more than 60 miles along the lake’s west shore and cover up the dry lakebed.
Another option would involve importing water to boost the lake’s levels. It could be seawater brought by canal from the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific Ocean, or slightly salty groundwater brought by pipeline from elsewhere in Southern California.
The costs of either path remain unclear. Wilcox has set a goal of reaching a decision on a long-range strategy by the end of 2018.
Colorado River’s future hangs in balance
By 2014, the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County had gotten tired of waiting for California to fulfill its then decade-old promise to restore the Salton Sea. So they submitted a petition to the State Water Resources Control Board, warning that for the water transfers to go forward, the state would need to commit to action at the Salton Sea. That caught the state’s attention, ultimately prompting the development of the 10-year-plan released last month.
But it’s not clear whether the plan is good enough for the irrigation district.
Imperial Valley officials have applauded the plan as a big step forward, but they’re also looking for a more binding commitment from the state. A day before the plan’s release, the district and the county filed a motion with the State Water Resources Control Board. They want the board to order the completion of a final plan by October 1, and they want that final plan to contain more specifics, such as acreages of projects for each year and actions to obtain additional funding.
District and county officials also said it will be critical to have a “firm and unequivocal commitment on the part of the State of California to fund the projects” outlined in the plan.
“The bright side is that they’re now talking about a 10-year roadmap. The downside is that the map doesn’t get you to 10 years” in terms of funding, said Kevin Kelley, the Imperial Irrigation District’s general manager. “So we’re going to be looking for some sort of acknowledgment, explicit acknowledgment of this state obligation over the course of 10 years.”
If the state doesn’t satisfy irrigation district officials, they aren’t afraid to play hardball.
For the last few years, California, Arizona and Nevada have been working on a deal to use less water from the over-allocated Colorado River, which provides water for nearly 40 million people but has dwindled during 17 years of drought. Without an agreement to leave more river water in Lake Mead, Arizona and Nevada could face unprecedented mandatory cutbacks — a situation no one wants to risk, including California. The Golden State would avoid mandatory cuts, at least initially, but it’s possible federal officials would step in and force California to share in the pain.
The Imperial Irrigation District has decided to use those high-stakes negotiations as a bargaining chip to force action at the Salton Sea. District officials have said they will only agree to a Colorado River deal after California adopts a viable Salton Sea plan.
From a financial standpoint, the Imperial Irrigation District has good reason to demand solutions. The district owns much of the land along the lake’s southern shore that could become dust-emitting playa, meaning it could be sued for damages by people who suffer the consequences of those emissions. Some farmers who receive relatively cheap water from the irrigation district are worried they could be forced to pay more for that water to cover the agency’s legal liabilities.
“Are we talking millions of dollars? Are we talking billions of dollars? If we get into billions of dollars, how is it going to get paid?” asked Jack Vessey, who grows leafy greens, melons and other crops in the Imperial Valley. “Is it going to break the IID? Is it going to break the system of what we do here?”
Vessey said farming profits have already been squeezed by rising labor costs and other factors, and higher water costs would further decrease growers’ earnings.
The Imperial Irrigation District’s board of directors nearly rejected the 2003 water transfer deal, narrowly approving it in a 3-2 vote only after coming under immense pressure from the federal government and water users across the Southwest. If the district decides the state’s plan isn’t good enough, it could upend that longstanding deal, as well as the Colorado River negotiations.
The irrigation district isn’t the only party that could throw a wrench in the works. Morrison, the Salton City-based activist, said “a lot of residents have expressed interest” in suing the state.
“I’m not ready to say if that’s anything we would be planning on or not,” he said. “But there’s a lot of interest in residents who know that accepting the status quo of Salton Sea management without seeking more is not enough, without keeping even the balance of health here now.”
Written by Sammy Roth and Ian James. Photos and videos by Zoë Meyers and Jay Calderon.
Photos and videos by Zoë Meyers and Jay Calderon.
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