Saving the Sea plans recede faster than the shoreline


Salton sea wheelSAN DIEGO – San Diego regional water officials are re-examining their long-stalled proposal to revive a rapidly deteriorating Salton Sea.

The San Diego County Water Authority has been pushing a new strategy that calls for sending more money, but no more fresh water, to speed up projects designed to help the shrinking sea, the state’s largest inland lake straddling Imperial and Riverside Counties. San Diego actually has no fresh water to send to the sea, except what the Authority receives from the Valley’s allotment to them. The water in question the Authority desires to keep.

Nearly 500,000 acre feet — enough for about 1 million homes for a year — is in play cumulatively along with more than $61 million through 2017.

The San Diego authority initially teamed up with the Imperial Irrigation District to petition state regulators in October 2011 for permission to move forward with the new approach.

Currently, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and San Diego authority, as part of a broader water transfer deal signed in 2003, are required to send vast amounts of water to the sea to make up for what’s lost when farmers fallow their land to generate supplies for the sale. The state-imposed regulation for replacement water expires at the end of 2017.

The water authority argues that having actual projects that reap benefits for the environment for years down the line is a better alternative to sending water for four more years and then abruptly stopping.

“We want to do something more durable,” said Halla Razak, who tracks the issue for the water authority.

San Diego’s application for the change in policy has languished while drawing sharp criticism from an array of powerful interests, including the state Department of Fish and Game, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial County Supervisors and the Coachella Valley Water District. They claim the plan could do more harm than good.

The new IID board has worked out a tentative compromise with Imperial County supervisors, who argue that without a continued flow of water the sea will shrink even more rapidly.

The two sides later this month plan to sign a legally binding agreement that would require the irrigation board to withdraw its support of the San Diego County water authority’s petition before the state Water Resources Control Board, leaving the application’s fate uncertain.

The water authority is not yet ready to concede, saying IID has not formally walked away.

“We are still engaged and ready to partner with folks to try to come up with solutions to help the Salton Sea,” Razak said,

Regardless of the outcome, the ongoing water transfer to the San Diego region will remain on track.

The IID-county agreement also spells out conditions for how water will be managed in the Imperial Valley and sets in motion policies to help reduce unhealthy playa drifting off the shores of the receding sea. The notorious valley winds whip up the shore dust, posing potential harm to residents, particularly children, the elderly and those with respiratory ailments.

Michael Rood, the county’s legal counsel, said requiring replacement water through 2017 “buys us some time” while pressuring the state to honor its commitments to restoration projects.

“That water is really the best and easiest way to mitigate some of the impacts,” he said.

The roots of the controversy can be traced back to 2003 when a broad seven-state agreement to share the Colorado River was brokered. As part of the deal, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell a vast amount of water to the San Diego County authority,

Currently, generating that water relies on idling some farm land, In doing so, however, tail water from the fields no longer drains into the sea. To prevent the sea from quickly receding and becoming even more saline, the parties are required to refill the sea with a like amount of water through 2017. The thinking is by that time the state would have its plan to preserve the sea in place.

In 2013, 34,000 acres will be left fallowed so that 170,000 acre feet can be sent to San Diego and to the sea. Farmers were paid $125 per acre-foot of water they saved in the most recent arrangement. But in future years, the irrigation district plans to adopt more water-saving measures to avoid fallowing as many fields.

Air pollution is so bad in the valley that the federal Environmental Protection Agency may step in. If that happens, Rood worries about the loss of federal funding and whether industrial development could be stymied if federal emission credits are denied.

Imperial County supervisors have also opposed the various steps to implement the water transfer, noting that idle farm land means idle workers.

“It is important that we ensure sufficient water remains in Imperial County to sustain agriculture, the economy and the environment,” Rood said.

The Salton Sea is an integral part of the Pacific Flyway, providing an important rest stop for over 400 species of migratory birds. It is also home for other rare species.

Recognizing its importance, the state for years has struggled to develop a comprehensive and cost-effective restoration plan as each passing year means the sea is closer to its demise. It is saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

In 2007, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled an ambitious 75-year, $9 billion plan for a rebirth, including programs to attract businesses and residents.

But that plan has foundered, short of money. The delay is what drove a frustrated San Diego authority and IID to try to switch strategy so more money, but not more water, goes to the sea.

Said San Diego’s Razak: “We’ve already put a lot of expensive water into the sea. We don’t believe by that date the state will have a viable plan to do anything with the Salton Sea.”

“No one believes it will ever be funded,” said Kevin Kelley, IID’s general manager. “After a decade of protracted legal wrangling, the Salton Sea is no closer to a viable solution.”

Imperial County’s Rood said supervisors also fear the problems may accelerate when mitigation water to the sea is no longer required starting in 2018. That’s just as the water transfer to San Diego begins ramping up before reaching the maximum 200,000 acre feet in 2021.

The amount now being sold to San Diego is purposely frozen at 100,000 acre feet per year from 2013-2017.