INDIO — An independent oversight board listened to Salton Sea experts’ testimony in Palm Desert, asserting the need for the State of California to abide by their promised, but not delivered, funding to save the Salton Sea and the local ecology.
Imperial Irrigation District’s November petition to the State Water Board concerning the Salton Sea generated a state workshop in March, which then caught the interest of the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency. On April 28, the group held a hearing at the University of Riverside Palm Desert campus
This is good news for the Valley as it keeps the fire burning under the State, who has, to date, failed to keep their part of the QSA water transfer agreement of funding the Sea’s restoration, said Ryan Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County board of supervisors.
All parties testifying agreed the QSA would never have been finalized without the state promising to offset, through funding mitigation solutions, the ecological disaster a dying Salton Sea will cause.
The State Water Board in 2002 ordered the delivery of mitigation water to the Salton Sea for a period of 15 years, giving the state time to work out funding for a plan to save the sea and halt the playa dust.
However, the state has not acted and the 15-year supply of fresh water will end in 2017.
As one testifier in front of the Little Hoover Commission said, “If you thought the problems at Mono Lake were bad, wait until that is multiplied three times because of the sheer size of the Salton Sea.”
General Manager Kevin Kelley testified for the IID, while Brad Poiriez, Imperial County air pollution control officer, and Ralph Cordova, county CEO, testified on behalf of the county. All had the same message — that time has run out and locals should lead the restoration planning with state funding.
“Let the locals lead the mitigation process. We live here. We live or we die by the results,” said Robert Hargreaves, general counsel for the Salton Sea Authority.
One commissioner, Jack Flanigan, was surprised to learn that although the federal government holds the greatest stake concerning acreage, nearly all the federal land is underwater, and they will not be liable for damages for 10 to 15 years — therefore they are not at the tipping point like the Valley and the state.
Brad Poiriez agreed, “We have been back to Washington, D.C. for help, but because of the delay in their liability, they are not concerned, but they are beginning to be engaged.”
“No one resolves a crisis until their backs are to the wall,” Hargreaves explained the apparent federal doctrine.
Jack Crayon, environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that while the state dawdled, local agencies and businesses have been busy laying an interwoven foundation with many successful pilot projects.
“The foundation has been laid, partnerships are there. The trouble is, nobody local has pockets deep enough to fund the size of projects needed to make a difference. The state needs to come through with their promises,” Crayon said.
Crayon went on to explain the events that predispose an ecological disaster. As fresh water is cut off in 2017, the Sea’s salinity will increase, eventually killing all fish. Without a feeding source, thousands of migrant and permanent bird species will either die or try to find the few spots that can sustain migrant life, he said.
Crayon explained that Klamath is one such area, but up there, white pelicans cannot fatten up enough to put lipids in their eggs, causing a drop in births. For over a century, he explained, the migrating birds have chosen the Salton Sea for a reason. Crayon warned about unforeseen effects as birds scramble to survive.
Poiriez said that 86 square miles of playa are presently exposed, which is approximately 8,000 acres. By the time the QSA is in full effect, 55,000 acres of toxic playa will be exposed; three times that of Mono Lake.
The air in the Imperial Valley already does not meet EPA air quality standards, before adding the exposed dry lakebed dust to the mix. If there is no restoration for the dried up lake, Poiriez predicted “severe economic repercussions that could halt economic development in the Imperial County.”
Yet, most speakers were optimistic that with smaller amounts of funding than the originally proposed $9 billion, solutions, plans, and personnel could quickly move into action. A pipeline to bring water from the Sea of Cortez is more realistic than ever with new technology. Others mentioned desalinization plants and geothermal wells that could help pay the restoration bill.
IID General Manager Kevin Kelley argued before the commission that the Valley realized the Sea needs to be smaller, and part of the large $9 billion dollar plan called for the restoration of the Sea to the halcyon days of the 1950’s and ‘60s. Kelley said a more realistic goal of a Salton Sea with a smaller surface area and volume could be sustained and maintained using current projected levels of inflows.
Ralph Cordova, CEO of Imperial County, finished his testimony by calling on the commission to act. In return, he promised them that if the Salton Sea is environmentally and economically stabilized, the people of the Imperial Valley will continue to use its land, intellect, and human resources to feed this great nation, provide renewable power to the western states, secure our borders, train those serving our military, and maintain important transportation corridors.