EL CENTRO – A new study from the Imperial Irrigation District projects that geothermal, solar and other green technology development at the Salton Sea could generate more than $4 billion over the next 30 years, with 50 percent or more to be used for the receding sea’s restoration.
The report goes to the IID Board of Directors on Tuesday, but while its findings may seem impressive at first, they come with significant caveats. Unanswered questions in the study range from whether the state would require utilities to buy geothermal power from the Salton Sea to whether conditions on the sea’s exposed lake bed might cut energy production from solar panels installed there.
A state audit in November also warned that no final figure has been calculated for the cost of restoring the salt water sea, California’s largest lake. Estimates have run from $3 billion to $9 billion.
The lake is shrinking and becoming saltier due to a decline in agricultural runoff, a situation which could trigger increasing amounts of dust blowing off the lake bed and loss of critical habitat for fish and birds.
Water levels are expected to fall lower and faster at the end of 2017, when a water transfer deal, the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), goes into effect, cutting the amount of water flowing into the sea even further. The state could be required to pick up a major portion of the mitigation costs of the QSA’s environmental impacts at the sea, but the money might not kick in until 2025 or later, according to the state audit.
Projected revenues in the new report would “jump-start Salton Sea restoration,” said Bruce Wilcox, IID’s environmental program manager for the sea. “This report addresses kind of an optimal situation where all of it gets developed. I don’t think anyone thinks this fixes or restores the Salton Sea; it gets us started. The idea is to build habitat and renewable energy in the same area. We are running out of time. We need to develop something that we can turn around fairly quickly.”