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Report: Inaction Way More Expensive Than Fixing Salton Sea

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The Salton Sea will become even more desolate -- and expensive -- unless we act | Photo: Beau Rogers/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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A segment based on this story is being produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Look for it on an upcoming show.

California's Salton Sea is trouble far deeper than the lake's increasingly shallow water. Expected to shrink considerably when its main water supply is shut off in 2017, the lake will rapidly become too saline to support most aquatic life, and the sea's exposed lakebed will contribute thousands of tons of alkaline dust to what's already some of the most polluted air in the country.

Since 2007, California has had a plan to mitigate some of the dying Sea's worst problems, preserving some wildlife habitat and keeping much of the lakebed covered in water to keep dust out of neighbors' lungs. That plan has essentially gone nowhere, largely due to its seemingly steep price tag. Initial capital costs, added to anticipated maintenance costs over the next few decades, will likely add up to about $18 billion, give or take a billion.

But a new report released Tuesday by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute says that however intimidating the Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program's price tag may be, doing nothing will cost at least $10 billion more, and perhaps $50 billion more, than fixing the sea.

The report, Hazard's Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea, suggest that the costs of contending with diminishing air quality, when added to plummeting property values and lost revenue from vacationers that decide to go somewhere else, could top $70 billion by 2045. Even using optimistic assumptions, writes the report's author Michael Cohen, expenses from ignoring the Sea's demise will likely run at least $29 billion -- $10 billion more the state's plan to fix the Sea would cost.

Unfortunately, people had assumed that failing to take action at the Salton Sea would not impose any measurable costs," said Cohen. The new report describes how wrong that assumption really is."

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Created by accident when a breached Colorado River canal flooded the dry bed of Lake Cahuilla in 1905, the Salton Sea has been kept watered for the century since by agricultural runoff. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which serves farms in the Imperial Valley, sold much of its share of the Colorado River's water to San Diego. Much of that water had been used in Imperial Valley irrigation, which ran off into the sea, and cuts to the farms meant less runoff.

As part of that 2003 deal, IID agreed to supply "mitigation water" to the sea to offset the reduced runoff from farms. But that mitigation water stops flowing in 2017, at which point the Salton Sea is expected to begin a decade of steep decline. Lake levels will diminish sharply, perhaps by twenty feet before 2025. The lake will become three times as salty in 15 years, and at that point more than 130 square miles of newly exposed lake bed will be disgorging as much as 30,000 tons of alkaline dust into the Salton Basin's air per year.

That means no habitat for the 400 species of migratory birds that now use the Sea as a crucial stopover spot. That could prove catastrophic, as those birds now use the Sea in lieu of the vast wetlands that once existed at the outflow of the Colorado River, which our diversions of the river's water have dried up.

A dead sea also means far worse air quality for residents of the Salton Basin, now numbering more than 600,000 and growing. Many of those residents, especially those living within a few miles of the sea, are living under the poverty line, most of them with limited English -- making wetlands restoration at the Salton Sea a crucial environmental justice issue.

The state's Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program would very likely keep the worst of that damage from happening. Under the program, more than 50 miles of berms would keep water from reaching the central portion of the sea. Instead, the sea's south end and north shore would be maintained as wildlife habitat, with the central area used as a brine sink to help control salinity in the open water sections.

As envisioned in 2007, construction on the project would have finished up by 2035. That deadline is likely a decade too optimistic at this point.

In the meantime, according to Cohen, there are just three small restoration projects underway to mitigate the Sea's impending demise, covering just under 1,400 acres of habitat. That's less than a sixtieth of the lakebed that will be exposed by 2035 if we do nothing.

And even the sea that remains will cost. Now covering around 350 square miles, it's expected to shrink to somewhere near 150 square miles by 2045, and that stagnant, shallow water will release frequent clouds of hydrogen sulfide and other noxious, odorous gases on a regular basis. One such "eruption" exposed most of Southern California to distinct unpleasant odors in September 2012; more and more frequent releases could catastrophically curtail the Coachella Valley's lucrative tourist trade, leading to many millions of dollars in lost revenue and taxes.

"Even with conservative estimates, the long-term social and economic costs of a deteriorating Salton Sea could approach $29 billion," said Cohen. "Failure to act imposes real costs on the 650,000 people living near the Salton Sea, and to a lesser extent on all Californians. These massive costs demonstrate the need for immediate action at the Salton Sea."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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