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Governor Cuts Salton Sea Agency, Enviros Shrug

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The Salton Sea, possibly doomed | Creative Commons photo by Seabamirum
The Salton Sea, possibly doomed | Creative Commons photo by Seabamirum

A state agency charged with protecting and restoring California's largest lake may fall victim to Governor Brown's latest round of proposed budget cuts, and the defenders of that lake aren't particularly upset.

The Salton Sea Restoration Council, a 16-member board established in September 2010, is one of six advisory groups to the state Department of Fish and Game that may be axed to mitigate the state's $9.2 billion budget shortfall, along with 42 other state-level advisory bodies.

The council's mandate was to determine the best course for the restoration of the sea and the protection of its wildlife. Governor Brown called for the council's dissolution shortly after taking office. In the 16 months since its establishment, the council's members have not met in person even once.

Without an aggressive campaign to restore the sea, which depends on agricultural runoff to replenish it, water transfers out of the Salton Basin will eventually shrink the sea to less than half its current volume. This catastrophic change is already in progress. The damage will really kick off five years from now, in 2017. That's when the thousands of acre-feet of water being shipped each year from Imperial County to San Diego will no longer be replaced with "mitigation water" pumped into the sea from the Colorado River. Unless an ambitious restoration program is launched immediately, the Salton Sea -- already a third saltier than the ocean -- will become hypersaline, killing off its population of the Endangered desert pupfish, and exposing hundreds of square miles of saline lake bottom to the air, devastating the Imperial Valley's already sketchy air quality.

And so you might expect environmental activists, as well as locals dependent on the Salton Sea for their economic livelihood, to be outraged at the proposed cut. As it turns out? Not so much. Locals and many a number of local environmentalists opposed the formation of the Salton Sea Restoration Council in the first place, fearing that a body driven by agendas set in Sacramento would be less than responsive to local conditions and concerns.

Map of the Salton Basin courtesy Wikimedia
Map of the Salton Basin courtesy Wikimedia

An alternative body already existed when the Restoration Council was first proposed: The Salton Sea Authority, a Joint Powers Authority consisting of local irrigation districts, Riverside and Imperial counties, and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. Formed in 1993, The Salton Sea Authority has been working on restoration plans with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation for two decades and is the likely heir to the Salton Sea Restoration Council's aborted mission. Assembly Bill 939, a measure authored by Coachella Valley Assemblyperson V. Manuel Perez, would formally shift the Salton Sea Restoration Council's duties to the Salton Sea Authority. The bill has been tied up in committee for some months.

Whoever ends up holding the reins has a daunting task ahead of them. Restoring the sea to its mid-20th century condition is just about impossible. The current scenario preferred by the state would dike off the north and south ends of the Sea to maintain two bodies of open water, exposing a broad stretch of seabed in the middle. About a dozen other scenarios have been floated in the last decade or so. All of them have something in common: a staggering price tag. To carry out the restoration plan as envisioned by the State of California would require about $9 billion even before counting the inevitable cost over-runs. Barring an infusion of federal cash, the Salton Sea's restoration is unlikely to commence any time soon.

A 2006 report by the Pacific Institute, HAZARD: The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project, spells out in no uncertain terms the probable public health result of failing to cough up that $9 billion:

Human health in the Imperial and Coachella valleys - currently home to more than 400,000 people and growing quickly - will be harmed by the estimated 33% increase in the amount of fine windblown dust in the basin. The Imperial Valley already suffers from the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the state; the growing number of retirees living in both valleys are especially susceptible to poor air quality.

And, the report continues, the effects on the Salton Basin's non-human inhabitants will be no less dire:

Many - if not most - of the hundreds of thousands of birds that currently use the Sea will lose their roosting and breeding habitats and their sources of food. The Sea's fish will be almost entirely gone within a dozen years. Those birds that remain will suffer from disease and the reproductive deformities and failures that plagued the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge twenty years ago. Some of the endangered and threatened species that use the Sea may be able to find other habitats, but others could suffer significant population losses.

The Pacific Institute, for its part, advocated for the establishment of the Salton Sea Restoration Council.

The loss of the aforementioned habitat is especially frightening to wildlife biologists. The Salton Sea, in existence only since 1905, provides a replacement for habitat once found in the sloughs and lagoons of the Colorado Delta. The construction of the Hoover Dam and other dams on the Colorado cut off the supply of water to the Delta, drying up those sloughs. The dams also ended the periodic floods that formed the Salton Sea and its predecessor, Ancient Lake Cahuilla, making any attempt to restore the sea a struggle to prolong the inevitable. Ironic that the very public works projects that doomed the Salton Sea also made it imperative that we keep it alive.

For the Record: This article has been edited to clarify the Pacific Institute's position and that of some Salton Basin environmentalists. See the below comments for details.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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