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Why Don't Californians Care About Saving The Salton Sea?

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The Salton Sea is critical wildlife habitat | Photo: David Prasad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It looks as though the state of California is starting to take the dying Salton Sea seriously. After years of relative inaction, both the Legislature and the Governor's office are taking actual steps to halt what could become one of California's biggest environmental and public health nightmares.

There's a new Salton Sea Czar to oversee restoration of the Sea's wetland habitats, a new resolve from the Brown administration to restore thousands of acres of wetlands around the shore, and a new, pressing deadline set by the Legislature to get those restoration projects lined up. After 15 years of warnings from environmental analysts, good government advocates, and regional leaders, California's government may finally be ready to roll up its sleeves to do something about the Sea's accelerating decline.

And that's a good thing, because doing nothing means losing crucial wildlife habitat, consigning some of California's least-affluent residents to chronic illnesses, and lowering Southern California property values by the billions. So why don't most Californians care?

It's not that no one in California is paying attention. A report released in September by the Little Hoover Commission, a state agency set up to watchdog inefficiencies in state government, echoed a warning offered a few weeks earlier by the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest player in the Salton Sea issue other than the state and federal governments. Both chided the state for its inaction and warned of the consequences. The renowned Pacific Institute, and other green groups such as California Audubon have been sounding the alarm for years: Failure to fix the Salton Sea will result in an environmental and public health catastrophe. But as hard as those groups have worked to get the word out, the Salton Sea has failed to gain much traction among the "Keep Tahoe Blue" set.

Up until a few months ago, the state's policy on the Salton Sea couldn't provide a better example of the kind of inefficiencies the Little Hoover Commission was set up to watchdog. By delaying action on its obligation to live up to a 2003 agreement to restore the Salton Sea, California's state government runs the risk of spending tens of billions of dollars more to address problems the Sea will cause as it dies.

That was a few months ago. But things are shifting. In May, Governor Brown assembled a Salton Sea task force, which presented the Governor with an accelerated action plan in early October: that plan stresses habitat restoration and dust control to preserve air quality. (Makes sense: loss of habitat and particulate matter pollution are the two biggest environmental and public health problems the Sea's collapse would bring with it.) In September, Brown appointed Bruce Wilcox Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea policy, a position the governor had just created within the state's Natural Resources Agency. It's hard to imagine a better pick for such a slot: Wilcox has spent a decade running Salton Sea restoration programs for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

Last week, Brown signed two bills written by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia that will likely speed things along: A.B. 197 would promote development of the area's geothermal energy resources, generally seen as an economic engine for long-term Sea restoration projects, and A.B. 1095 would put the state's Natural Resources Agency in charge of working with the existing Salton Sea Authority to fix the Sea, and sets a deadline at the end of March 2016 for the agency to submit a list of relevant "shovel-ready" projects to the Legislature.

This is all great news for the Sea, its wildlife, and anyone who stands a chance of breathing in its alkaline lakebed dust or periodic hydrogen sulfide releases. But it's awfully late, and it's easy to guess why the state government might have dithered about ponying up the very large amount of money fixing the Sea will require. Aside from the valiant efforts of groups like the Pacific Institute and some At a recent Southern California water summit, the State Water Resources Control Board's Felicia Marcus put it this way:

.@FeliciaMarcus on #SaltonSea: "Something's got to happen. You have to avert disaster. People have to keep holding us accountable." #EWS2015— Sammy Roth (@Sammy_Roth) October 1, 2015

And if the Salton Sea had been San Francisco Bay, or Lake Tahoe, or Mono Lake, Californians would have been yelling for decades that the Sea needs saving, working to keep government accountable. But the Salton Sea doesn't command notice among environmentally minded Californians the way those other bodies of water do. You're more likely to see a "Keep Tahoe Blue" bumpersticker in Palm Springs than you are stickers referring to the Salton Sea. And the reason: The Salton Sea doesn't conform to what we think Nature ought to be.

What's threatening the Sea?

The Salton Sea, formed 110 years ago by an engineering accident that diverted the Colorado River's flow into the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, has been fed in the intervening century by runoff from agricultural irrigation. In that time the Sea has become crucial habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife. That's especially important given that our use of the Colorado River's water has starved the formerly lush Colorado Delta, diverting the water that once supported lush wetlands and riparian forests. Now, the Salton Sea is often the only suitable stopover habitat in the region for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

That's about to change. In 2018 the Salton Sea will likely begin shrinking dramatically, the result of drastically reduced flows into the inland sea. The nearby IID has been deliberately sustaining the Sea by releasing so-called "mitigation water" into the Sea, but that "mitigation water" will dry up at the end of 2017, when IID reaches the end of its legal obligation to supply that mitigation water.

That water is being provided as part of an agreement called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, a 2003 pact designed to bring California's use of Colorado River water down to, or below, the 4.4 million acre-feet per year to which it's legally entitled. As part of the Agreement, IID has been allowed to sell an increasing amount of water to San Diego County. That water would otherwise have irrigated Imperial County farms, and then run into the Sea, refilling it. As part of the deal, IID agreed to put mitigation water into the Sea to make up for that shortfall until the state could come up with a restoration plan. That mitigation water stops flowing in 2018, 15 years after the Quantification Settlement Agreement was signed, which seemed like a lot of time back then.

Once that mitigation water stops, the Sea won't have nearly enough water coming in to make up for water lost to evaporation, and the increased rate of decline in the Sea's level will be immediately apparent. The Salton Sea is already fringed with many square miles of exposed lakebed, and that dry lakebed will only grow as the lake shrinks. And that's a problem: the exposed lakebed is expected to contribute tons of alkaline dust every day to an airshed that's already one of the most polluted in the nation, where elementary schools fly air-quality flags in their schoolyards, and the county's kids go to emergency rooms with asthma attacks at twice the national average.

Wildlife will take a hit too. As the Sea shrinks, its water will become saltier. Already half again as salty as the ocean, the Salton Sea is now inhospitable to most fish other than tilapia, which provide a food supply for millions of migrating birds. Without action to restore the Sea, its water will likely become too saline even for tilapia by 2025 or so, and the birds -- white pelicans, cormorants, egrets and herons, and about 200 other species -- will lose a major source of sustenance. Receding lake levels will allow predators access to nesting sites, and decreasing water quality will promote outbreaks of avian botulism -- several of which have already killed hundreds of birds in years past.

"The risk to Southern Californians, and in particular the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, their economies and to migrating wildlife, is mounting and well-documented," said Little Hoover Commission Vice Chair Loren Kaye in a press release announcing the Commission's report. "The state has studied this subject long enough; now is the time for action."

So why isn't Los Angeles chock-full of "Save The Salton Sea" bumperstickers?

Crucial, but artificial

There are a few differences between the Salton Sea and more mediagenic threatened bodies of water such as Lake Tahoe. For one thing, the Salton Sea is what many planners call a "working landscape": it resembles Mono Lake and Lake Tahoe far less, with their wilderness surrounds, than it would a reservoir in the midwest. Especially at the south end, the Salton Sea is surrounded by evidence of industry. The geothermal power plants at the lake's south end, scattered around the Brawley Seismic Field, are the center of an industrial presence in the landscape that extends through forty miles of agricultural fields, confined animal feeding operations and sprawling small cities to the border and Mexicali.

Then again, San Francisco Bay is ringed with oil refineries and airports and landfills, and it has no lack of environmentalist support. Likewise with Santa Monica Bay. In fact, the Salton Sea has more de facto wilderness surrounding its shores than either of those more popular pieces of saltwater: there are miles of beautiful desolation along the Salton Sea's east and west shores, some of it permanently protected.

Demographics may play a role as well: if you made a Venn Diagram of "people who live and work near the Salton Sea" and "people who shop at REI," there probably wouldn't be a whole lot of overlap between those two sets. Mainstream environmentalism has long been justifiably criticized for its affluent, generally Anglo makeup, and it's hard to imagine that the Sea's generally working class neighbors, more than 80 percent of them Latino in Imperial County, might not be part of the reason that affluent enviro types don't hold the Sea as a priority.

There are plenty of possible reasons. But in 20 years of talking to environmentally concerned people about the Salton Sea, one factor comes up time and time again: people created the Salton Sea, and people are going to have to maintain it, and that whole concept doesn't fit into the usual environmentalist "leave nature to its own devices" mindset.

Nature Knows Best

Here's that mindset in capsule form:

Nature was getting along just fine without us. Then humans came along with our plows and our bulldozers and our aqueducts and our half-caff gluten-free soy mocha lattes in single-use disposable cups, and we ruined everything. In order to give Nature some room to breathe, we have to stop doing things that interfere with Natural processes, so that Nature can heal itself.

It's easy to think of issues where that more or less fits. Coastal ecosystems suffer from oil spills, therefore we need to stop dumping oil in the ocean. Mono Lake was going to die because LADWP was diverting too much water from its feeder streams, therefore LADWP has to stop taking too much water. Cutting down old growth redwoods was putting wildlife in danger, therefore we should stop cutting down old-growth redwoods.

It's not bad advice, overall. The problem with applying it to the Salton Sea's immediate future is that what Nature will create in the Salton Sink if we just leave it alone is something we won't be able to live with.

Nature, after all, was perfectly content to dry up a few previous versions of the Salton Sea, one iteration of Ancient Lake Cahuilla after another, each one formed when the Colorado River jumped its bank and flowed into the Salton Sink instead of to its delta. The Salton Sink and Lake Cahuilla were in fact part of the Colorado Delta, and when the river shifted, wildlife that depended on the river's terminal wetlands would just move a couple dozen miles. (If they could move, that is. The clams were out of luck.)

Not that there wasn't social dislocation as each Lake Cahuilla dried up. You can still see evidence on the stranded shores of those ancient lakes of villages and fishing camps, inhabited by the ancestors of today's Cahuilla and Quechan peoples and their neighbors, and people likely suffered when the shore receded. They were certainly at least inconvenienced. And they probably suffered ailments from breathing in lakebed dust.

But those early residents could pick up when Lake Cahuilla dried up, move their fishing to the Delta and the Sea of Cortez, and find other ways to support themselves in the desert landscape over the few generations it took for those much larger versions of the Salton Sea to dry up. It's hard to imagine today's residents of the Imperial and Coachella valleys doing that. About 175,000 people live in the Imperial Valley full-time now, and about twice that number in the Coachella Valley. If they all leave in search of better places to live once the Sea dries up, that's a refugee population about the size of the city of Fresno.

In any event, when Nature dried up Lake Cahuilla, it was because the Colorado had shifted its course again and once more flowed out to the Sea of Cortez. That meant that the wildlife habitat the Sea provided hadn't gone away: it had just moved forty miles southeast.

Now, as a result of a century of building dams on the Colorado, no water reaches the delta except on rare occasions. The habitat that was waiting there for wildlife escaping Lake Cahuilla as it dried up won't be there for the Salton Sea's wildlife.

And that, along with the certainty of increased air pollution from the lake bed increasing respiratory sickness in a population that already suffers some of the highest rates of respiratory sickness in the state, is why we can't just let nature take its course at the Salton Sea.

Instead, California will have to garden the Salton Sea. We're going to have to spend decades, perhaps centuries of effort and funds, and increasingly scarce water, to prop up what remains of the Colorado Delta's habitat and keep the Sea floor wet enough that the dust stays put. If we don't, we can count on a serious decline in bird numbers on the Pacific Flyway, on immense suffering among asthmatic kids in Calexico and El Centro, and on more and more frequent days like those in early September 2012, when hydrogen sulfide from the dying Sea spread its rotten egg smell as far as the San Fernando Valley.

In other words, saving the Salton Sea seems like an engineering project rather than an environmental victory. That doesn't make it any less important, but it does explain why saving the sea might not have gotten the kind of traction among environmentally concerned Californians. We'll need bulldozers, and concrete, and aqueducts to save the Salton Sea. And that kind of takes it out of the realm of feel-good "letting nature take its course" by refraining from doing whatever it is we're doing that messes up the ecosystem.

There is another way, but you might not like it.

Does that mean the usual "leave Nature alone and it will work out okay" sentiment doesn't apply to the Salton Sea at all? Well, no. The problem comes when we look at the Salton Sea as a single entity, considering it separately not only from the rest of the Colorado Delta but from the river as a whole.

Because when you look at the Salton Sea as an integral part of the Colorado Delta, you then need to ask not what we're doing to mess up the Salton Sea, but what we're doing to mess up the whole Sea and Delta complex.

And that's an easy question to answer: we're diverting every drop of water from the river. If we didn't do that, then the complex, shifting ecosystem of the Colorado Delta -- including the Salton Sea -- could indeed begin to repair itself.

Of course, cities like Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles would have to learn to get along with a lot less water from the Colorado. Which means that one of the things we'd need to stop doing to save the Salton Sea might be watering our lawns. Just a thought.

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