State Not Living Up to Promise to Fix Salton Sea, Says Water District

Sunset on the Salton Sea? | Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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A major player in the Imperial County water world is saying the state of California isn't living up to its promise to restore the Salton Sea, and that there will be dire consequences for Southern Californians unless the state steps up to the plate now.

In a petition filed with the State Water Quality Control Board, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) is urging the agency to force the state and other parties to come to the negotiating table within the next six months to start the real work of restoring the Salton Sea.

That real work will be real expensive: a report by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute released earlier this year estimated the costs of restoring the Salton Sea at around $18 billion, in part due to more than a decade of delay in starting the restoration process. But doing nothing will be a lot more expensive, the report said. Inaction on the sea could cost the state close to $70 billion in reduced property values, public health costs, and lower agricultural productivity.

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The Imperial Irrigation District's November 18 petition comes in the context of a 2003 agreement between that district and the San Diego County Water Authority, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District, the state of California, and the U.S. Department of the Interior intended to bring California's consumption of Colorado River water down to the 4.4 million acre-feet per year to which the state is actually entitled.

Under that pact, called the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), the Imperial Irrigation District is selling an increasing amount of water to the San Diego County Water Authority -- up to 200,000 acre-feet per year by 2021 -- and an eventual maximum of 103,000 acre-feet per year to the Coachella Valley Water District. The agreement lasts for 75 years.

For perspective, the average resident of Los Angeles County uses about a fifth of an acre-foot of water per year.

The problem with transferring that water from the Imperial Irrigation District's largely agricultural customer base to cities along the coast is that the Salton Sea, home to some of the most important migratory bird habitat in the West, is dependent on runoff from Imperial Valley farm fields. Without that runoff, the sea evaporates, getting more and more saline and exposing many square miles of lakebed. When the Salton Sea's lakebed is exposed it dries out, and that allows wind to pick up deposited salts and silt, making the Salton Basin's already dirty air even dirtier.

In other words, letting the Salton Sea die would be bad for both wildlife and people in and around the sea.

So the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which went into effect in 2003, contained a provision saying that the Imperial Irrigation District had to put "mitigation water" into the sea to keep lake levels from declining too rapidly over the first years of the agreement. That provision was intended to give the state of California some time to come up with, and launch, a program to restore habitat in the Salton Sea to lessen the effects of the transfer on people and wildlife. And the state agreed to shoulder the burden of restoring the sea in that year.

That mitigation water provision ends in 2017, just about two years away. But in the decade since the Quantification Settlement Agreement went into effect, the state has done almost nothing to keep the Salton Sea from dying.Hence the petition by the Imperial Irrigation District asking the State Water Quality Control Board to bring together all the above-listed parties to the agreement, along with the Salton Sea Authority, within the next six months to get serious about restoring the sea. First among the topics of discussion would be nailing down funding for the project's hefty price tag. In the words of the petition:

"The mitigation water delivered to the sea under the original state board order ends in 2017," said IID board President Jim Hanks in a press release, "and the state is no closer to implementing a restoration plan today than it was in 2003.The state's failure to act, along with an already-receding shoreline and the looming deadline of 2017 pose a direct threat to not only the residents of the Imperial and Coachella valleys but to the long-term viability of the QSA."

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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