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Saving the Salton Sea, Part II: Can't Wait For the State

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Tree stranded in saline flats, Red Hill Bay | Photo: Chris Clarke
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Bruce Wilcox might just have the best job in California. For the last decade, the soft-spoken biologist has overseen a huge experimental campaign designed to provide habitat for wildlife at the south end of the rapidly dwindling Salton Sea. His projects, stretched along about ten miles of shoreline between the Alamo and New rivers in Imperial County, are part laboratory, part native plant garden, and part sandbox. The goal: take the water those rivers contribute to the beleaguered Salton Sea and use it to restore a sliver of the wetlands the Sea supported in its heyday in the mid-20th Century.

Despite the scale of the projects he manages, Wilcox is the first to say that they're the tiniest fraction of what needs to be done to keep the Salton Sea's ecosystem from collapsing in the next few years, creating an ecological disaster and a public health nightmare. "To save the Salton Sea," says Wilcox, "California will need to spend billions of dollars over the next several decades."

"But we can't just sit around and wait for the state to get started," he adds.

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That "we" is Wilcox's employer, the Imperial Irrigation District, IID for short, the third largest publicly owned utility in the state of California and the owner of most of the land along the Salton Sea's south shore -- as well as of the lands currently submerged by the hypersaline Sea.

In 2003, IID signed a landmark agreement with other Southern California water companies and the state of California to divide up the state's share of the Colorado River. That agreement is called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA. As part of apportioning the 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to which California is legally entitled in all but the driest years, the QSA allowed the Imperial Irrigation District to sell a large amount of its share of the Colorado to the increasingly thirsty suburbs of San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.

That water would formerly have gone to irrigate farms in the Imperial Valley, eventually reaching the Salton Sea as runoff. Even before the water transfer started, the sea was dwindling: since its glory days in the 1950s and 1960s, there just hadn't been enough water running into the sea to make up for evaporation driven by the Salton Basin's torrid summer heat.

By 2020, as much as 200,000 acre-feet of the IID's allotment will be going to San Diego County instead of the Imperial farm fields. Another 100,000 or so will head to the Coachella Valley. Without that inflow of relatively fresh water, the Salton Sea will start drying up far faster. That will expose hundreds of square miles of alkaline lake bed to the desert winds, worsening air pollution in what is already one of the worst-polluted places in the country. It will also destroy some of the last remaining wildlife habitat in the greater Colorado Delta region, and loss of that habitat will mean serious trouble for the migratory birds and other creatures that depend on it.

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Salton Sea shoreline recedes at Red Hill | Photo: Chris Clarke
 

So as part of the QSA as signed in 2003, IID and its client, the San Diego County Water Authority agreed to provide the Salton Sea with "mitigation water"; the agencies allowed enough fresh water to flow into the sea to keep it from drying up. That water hasn't kept the sea full; the shore has receded by close to a mile in some places. But there's still more sea now than there would have been without the mitigation water.

That mitigation water was never intended as a long-term solution. Instead, when the QSA was first signed, it was intended to give the State of California a decade and a half to come up with a plan to save the Salton Sea. Twelve years on, that plan is nowhere to be seen. If IID cuts off the mitigation water on schedule with no restoration plan in place, the sea will start receding in earnest, and more and more toxic lakebed dust will hit the air.

In December, IID petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to force the QSA's parties back to the negotiating table to hammer out a workable plan to save the sea.

In the meantime, IID has come up with a plan to save what it calls a "reduced Salton Sea." Taking advantage of the south sea's relatively abundant geothermal resources, IID plans to build about 1,700 megawatts of new geothermal power plants. (That would boost the California' geothermal capacity by about 40 percent.) With a bit of new transmission infrastructure to hook into existing power lines, that power could be sold to raise funds to restore the sea.

IID also has plans for solar power generation on the exposed seabed, potentially reducing the degree to which winds pick dust off the ground and launch it into the air.

And the centerpiece of the project, at least as far as wildlife habitat is concerned, will be a network of different kinds of wetland habitat, from upland desert mesquite bosques to cattail freshwater marshes to open water, giving the Colorado Delta's birds a place to hang on until the state of California gets its act together.

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Red Hill Bay | Photo: Chris Clarke
 

It doesn't take a whole lot of water level decline to expose that alkaline lakebed. A recent satellite image from Google Maps, for instance, shows a fair amount of water in Red Hill Bay near Calipatria. In early January of this year, I stand about a hundred feet off "shore" with Bruce Wilcox and take the photo embedded above: nothing but dry salt well past the bay's mouth. Not long ago water lapped at the western verge of Garst Road. Now you could park on the shoulder of Garst and walk a mile west without getting your feet wet.

That shallow topography also means it wouldn't take a whole lot of water to turn Red Hill Bay back into open water, useful habitat for birds. "We're looking at a kind of berm that can be towed across the mouth of the Bay," says Wilcox. "It's kind of like a sausage casing; we'd tow it across, pump sediment into it, and let it harden." Then, says Wilcox, a minor re-routing of the Alamo River, which runs just a few hundred feet north, could refill Red Hill Bay, restoring it as bird habitat.

Those birds are waiting. On our way to Red Hill Bay from the IID's headquarters in Imperial, we passed a group of thousands of snowy egrets gleaning an alfalfa field outside of Brawley. White pelicans mass in the hundreds along the receding water line of the Sea. Dozens of great blue herons lurk along the banks of the Alamo River, ungainly and spectacular as they burst into flight before us.

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Great blue heron at the Salton Sea | Photo: Alan Vernon/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

It's a hint of the biological richness that must have characterized the whole Colorado Delta region a century ago. North of Red Hill Bay, Wilcox pilots the truck through a stand of Allenrolfea, an extremely salt-tolerant succulent shrub. I'd seen Allenrolfea before, growing in low mats on the salt flats around Badwater in Death Valley. Here at the Salton Sea, it grows five feet tall.

"There's a bobcat that lives in around here." Wilcox points at a copse of Allenrolfea, steering with his left hand. "I see him sitting in the road here a lot. I guess he's busy today."

Maybe it's just the way the wind is blowing, but the air seems to hold none of the characteristic stench of the Salton Sea on a bad day, laced with metallic tang and rotten eggs. Instead, the wetlands around the sea bear the smell of healthy habitat: salt air, the resins of sunlit mesquite and Allenrolfea, and the aroma of wet humus.

Wilcox drives us past IID's "managed marshes," a series of wetland "cells" along the Alamo River separated by small levees, with cattails and tules and standing water in varying combinations. Each cell is a laboratory of sorts, in which techniques for restoring and managing the habitat inside are put to the test. Wilcox and his colleagues have already learned some things from the first batch of managed marshes, built in 2009. "When we built this series of cells," Wilcox says, "we found out that there's enough of a gradient between the uphill and downhill cells that it's hard to apply water properly to all of them. If the uphill cells get enough water, the cells downstream get waterlogged."

It's hard to tell that there's a problem, from my perspective: the wetlands all look lush and green, the open-water stretches full of herons, cormorants, and coots. Along with a bit of restored upland mesquite habitat along Route 111 near Niland, and a small open water pond along the shore, the managed marshes make up more than 750 acres of apparently thriving habitat available to passing birds and other wildlife.

Farther west, near the point where the New River flows into the sea, we look out at a stretch of salt flat punctuated with a mixed bosque of mesquite and invasive tamarisk. In larger trees offshore, clumps of deliberately arranged sticks occupy the spaces between major limbs. Wilcox points at the large nests. "Heron rookeries," he explains. Some of the rookeries have been abandoned, as the receding shoreline makes the trees accessible to land-based egg-stealing animals. "Once we get some water back onto this area, the herons will probably come back again." Rather than remove the tamarisk before that, Wilcox explains, they'll just leave it in place and drown its roots. "The submerged brush will be really good fish nursery habitat," he adds.

None of the IID's plans assume there's any chance of restoring the Salton Sea to its former glory. There is simply too much demand for too little water. That 4.4 million acre-feet of the Colorado River to which the state is legally entitled each year is based on assumptions made in 1922 that the river's annual flow was more than 16 million acre-feet. Actual flow in recent decades has been more like 13 million acre-feet on average, and no one expects that to continue in a warming world.

"We'll probably never see the Salton Sea return to the way it was in the 1950s," says Wilcox. "But we have to do something to make sure migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway continue to have a place to land here. They're depending on us."

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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