Plans and Pessimism Meet in Discussion of Salton Sea Threat

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Bruce Wilcox presents the issues and possible solutions to maintaining the Salton Sea
Bruce Wilcox of the California Natural Resources Agency presents issues and possible solutions to maintaining the Salton Sea during a public workshop on Thursday.

EL CENTRO – The California Natural Resources Agency held a public workshop Thursday in El Centro’s Imperial Irrigation District auditorium, where interested parties were informed of the progress regarding plans to address the exposed playa surrounding the Salton Sea. The presentation was followed by a time of questions by the attendees, which focused on funding and health concerns for the Imperial Valley. The workshop is one of many, each being held in various cities affected by the issue.

“The purpose of this first set of meetings is to introduce this (issue),” said Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for the Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. “One of the task force goals was to be more transparent and to have more involvement.”

Wilcox led the presentation and answered questions and comments from the audience.

Concern has been raised over the decreasing water level of the sea, which would expose more playa, thereby making contaminates from the water rest on top of the dried topsoil. Combined with winds from the Northwest, the contaminates would be blown toward the major population centers of the Imperial Valley, which has spawned fears that major health issues such as asthma and cancer would dramatically rise.

“I’ve lived in Salton City for the past seven years and I want solutions,” remarked Ramon Noriega, who submitted his statement by a comment card offered at the meeting. “We’ve been studying the SS for too long, for 30 years or more. It is time to do something positive.”

So far, several initial projects have been researched and tested, including treating exposed playa with magnesium chloride via crop-dusting, which would clump the contaminates together and make them too heavy to be picked up easily by the wind. Yet, such a method has drawbacks as well.

“Magnesium chloride is not the most benign product. At high concentrations it could be injurious to wildlife, so we’re looking for other solutions,” Wilcox admitted.

More realistically, Wilcox presented a plan for building a series of levies around the sea, which would allow sections of the playa to be flooded with up to a foot of water. Additional analysis is needed to see if levies are a viable solution. Other options included geothermal facilities and plowed ridges perpendicular to the wind, which would reduce dust-up. Wilcox noted that all the plans not only need further development, but financial support.

“We don’t have the money to fund it all. That’s a fact,” he said.

While the presentation was thorough in explaining the possible solutions to the falling water levels, as well as possible sources of funding from both the state and federal levels, attendees wondered why virtually no effort had been put toward predicting the health effects if the funding did not come through.

“Perhaps it should’ve been done,” said Wilcox. “I think the county is talking about doing a baseline health assessment now, which is a good idea.”

With current funding falling short of the amount needed to pay for even the first phase of the plan, roughly $80 million of the projected $2.5 to $3 billion, the question of public health seemed a priority to many who attended the workshop.

“I just don’t feel like the health component is being addressed,” said one attendee after the meeting.