Feds Join California’s Fight to Save Salton Sea

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Receding Salton Sea shoreline
Receding Salton Sea shoreline

  SACRAMENTO, Calif.  — President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and California Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled several initiatives aimed at rescuing the beleaguered Salton Sea during an environmental summit at Lake Tahoe earlier this week.
“In partnership with California, we are going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late,” Obama said during his Wednesday afternoon speech.
 

Plans call for shoreline restoration projects, the construction of canals to supply fresh water to the shrinking lake and wetland restoration. The leaders also touted investment in potential renewable energy projects, including geothermal plants capable of taking advantage of the Salton Sea’s unique characteristics.

 

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake at approximately 350 square miles. Situated in the desert climate of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys 125 miles to the east of Los Angeles, the lake was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded.

 

Straddling the San Andreas Fault, the large shallow lake surrounded by a barren landscape has a higher saline content than the ocean, rendering it one of the geologically and geographically unique features of California.

 

But the Salton Sea has fallen on hard times.

 

In 2003, an agreement reshaping water allotments from the Colorado led to a dramatic decline in the inflow of water into the Salton Sea. That decline is expected to spike in the next 15 years with a nearly 40 percent decrease in inflow, leading to a 20 foot decline in the surface of the lake, a 60 percent decrease in volume, according to the Pacific Institute’s 2014 study “Hazard’s Toll.”

 

The lake is an avian sanctuary of almost unparalleled diversity and activity, home to nearly 400 species of birds.

 

“Several bird species occur regularly here and nowhere else in western North America, contributing to the exceptionally high year-round diversity of birds,” the Audobon Society said in a report on the sea.

 

The sea and its surrounding tributaries are also home to several species of fish, including the endangered desert pupfish.

 

Implications of the acceleration of shrinkage at the Salton Sea extend beyond ecological impacts, with detrimental effects to human health and the local economy.

 

The exposure of nearly 100 square miles of desert currently underwater would lead to greater dust swirls, which will in turn cause greater respiratory distress for residents living near the lake.

 

Multiple reports indicate the rates of asthma-related hospitalization of children are already the highest in the state for communities that surround the Salton Sea.

 

The adverse effects to human health will likely lead to steep decreases in property values, according to the Pacific Institute study.

 

If the government does nothing for the sea, it could cost as much as $70 billion in terms of ecological destruction, human health impacts and associated economic harm.
With this in mind, Brown earmarked about $80 million for restoration projects on the Salton Sea when he revealed his proposed budget earlier this year. The budget allocation comes on the heels of the creation of the Salton Sea Task Force, which pledged to restore 37,000 acres of shoreline habitat in the next few years while tackling other water quality and dust suppression projects.

 

“The Salton Sea has a long and storied history in California and with these key restoration projects, the state is helping protect air quality while maintaining a viable water supply in the region,” Brown said when he unveiled the task force.

 

Another major component of the restoration projects includes the construction of canals capable of bringing fresh water from the Alamo and New Rivers, which will offset anticipated depletions in runoff.

 

Plans call for the creation of artificial wetlands, or shallow ponds to be built on the outskirts of the lake, to create a buffer that accommodates birds and reduces the amount of dust from the receding waters.

 

This week, the federal government unveiled plans to supplement the state’s efforts in concert with the president’s keynote speech at the 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit.

 

The White House announced new fundraising goals through the Water Fund Initiative and the pursuit of renewable energy projects in the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley area, including the construction of geothermal plants.

 

Boxer, who shared the stage with Obama at the summit, visited the Salton Sea earlier this month and called for greater urgency in confronting the lake’s deteriorating conditions.

 

“If we don’t act faster than we are acting now, we will face a public health disaster and an environmental disaster,” Boxer said.

 

Boxer noted that the area has already seen massive fish die-offs, declines in bird populations, an increase in the toxic dust storms that contain pesticides, fertilizers and the near constant stench of hydrogen sulfide intermingled with the smell of dying fish.

 

“If we don’t act faster than we are acting now, we will face a public health disaster and an environmental disaster,” Boxer said.