No funds sought for Salton Sea

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Photo by Mark Sigmon
Photo by Mark Sigmon of fish die off at Salton Sea

WASHINGTON D.C. – The Salton Sea is absent from a request by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein for more than $1.3 billion in federal funds for California water projects.

Feinstein made the request in an Oct. 11 letter to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chaired by her fellow California Democrat, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. It requests funds for projects from Sacramento down to Cal­exico.

The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is slowly dying as its salinity increases. Shrinking lake levels are expected to dry up even faster by 2018, when a water transfer deal to San Diego County enters full implementation and the sea’s water supply via agricultural runoff is reduced. It could ultimately expose more than 140 square miles of lake bottom sediments to the desert wind, damaging the Coachella and Imperial valleys’ public health and economies. An ecological disaster would ensue with fish and bird habitats reliant on the sea, scientists say.

Feinstein’s letter notes her latest requests are in addition to those she made in a May 2010 letter to the committee. That longer list of water projects also doesn’t include a request for Salton Sea funds. All told, some 50 California water projects are listed without the Salton Sea among them.

Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer noted that Congress authorized $30 million for the Salton Sea in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but the money has not been used. A required state and local match of $10 million was never provided.

“Congress rarely authorizes additional funds when the initial funding for a program remains unutilized,” he said.

Feinstein also requested $5 million for sea restoration in the fiscal year 2011 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, but that was the year an earmark ban took effect, Mentzer said.

“Because the earmark ban still applies to projects requested by members of Congress in specific locations, the only way Congress could appropriate those funds today is if the Army Corps of Engineers makes a request for them, and that has not happened,” he said.

The sea’s other federal lawmakers haven’t been particularly successful in garnering federal funds toward a fix either. Boxer’s website touts that she secured $4.5 million for the sea in 2002, and the unused $30 million for sea restoration projects in the 2007 bill.

“As soon as we get a plan and the matching funds, I will do everything I can to move this critical restoration project forward,” Boxer told The Desert Sun in late September.

In the House, Palm Springs Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, calling on them to “bring together your agencies and work with our local and state leaders” on Salton Sea solutions. She’s also called for a new Congressional hearing about the sea, due to dissatisfaction with the state’s lack of progress.

The state’s preferred alternative for sea mitigation and restoration in 2007 was estimated to cost nearly $9 billion. That plan quickly stalled in the state Legislature due to sticker shock and struggles with the state budget deficit.

Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, an environmental policy and research nonprofit involved in Salton Sea issues, said he was “frustrated and disappointed” at the lack of requests for federal funds for sea mitigation. But Cohen points the finger at Sacramento.

“The federal government almost 10 years ago made it pretty clear the state needed to get some sort of project together,” he said. “They’ve failed to do that — there’s no consensus at the state level.”

Cohen said he hopes a new executive director at the Salton Sea Authority, a joint powers organization seeking local solutions at the sea, and continued interest by state Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez will help change talk to “real projects” that will “then get Feinstein interested in funding them.”

“It’s up to the state to really get things going,” he said.

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