Salton Sea 10-Year Plan to expose more, but wetter exposed playa

Water from the New River is diverted into the Brawley wetlands where it is purified before re-entering the New River. Such projects have been effective in improving the quality of water that flows into the Salton Sea. Drone photo by Brett Miller

BRAWLEY — The California Natural Resources Agency are hosting a series of public workshops concerning a mitigation plan for the Salton Sea’s receding shoreline, including the June 22 workshop at the Del Rio Library in Brawley. The workshops are being held in strategic cities across the area and are designed to get feedback from the community.

California’s current plan to intervene in the restoration of the Salton Sea will actually increase the amount of exposed playa as the projects are completed, according to a senior environmental scientist with the California Natural Resources Agency.

Vivien Maisonneuve of the Department of Water Resources presented an overview of the plan. With current funding, the various projects for Phase One will eliminate 1,500 acres of exposed playa. While the projects will require water to function, other waterless methods are expected to be explored and employed, such as surface roughening, planting vegetation, and applying surface stabilizer – an agent that prevents hazardous elements from being easily picked up by the wind.

Released March 16, the 10-Year Plan calls for a range of projects designed to keep hazardous contaminates in the playa from being blown into the air. Some of the attendees Thursday night were skeptical that the plan would not only be efficient, but even effective.

“I think the only benefits generated are those on the receiving end of the funds: the consultants, the environmentalists, and whoever is doing work.,” said Robert Trimm of Brawley.

“This first phase is designed to meet the goals of the task force by 2028,” said Maisonneuve. “It calls for the design and construction of habitat and dust mitigation.”

“Every year or two year we’ll start a new project, or the design phase at least,” said Maisonneuve.

Maisonneuve opened the floor to questions, where the question was asked, “Where will all this water come from?”

Maisonneuve acknowledged that the projects would draw water from the Salton Sea and the New River, thereby accelerating the exposure of hazardous playa.

“As we build habitat, we will have a net loss of covered playa,” he confirmed.

However, Maisonneuve said that while the overall surface area of the playa would increase, the exposed areas would be on average closer to the water line, meaning the playa would have increased moisture levels and therefore be less susceptible to winds. Maisonneuve said that the reclaimed, less salty water from the habitats could be used to encourage more vegetation growth in the areas where the water level has receded.

The 10-year, $383 million plan was also critiqued for ignoring successful restoration projects in the past implemented by the private sector. Trimm pointed to the success of wetland projects in purifying the New River, and asked why more weren’t being considered as part of the state’s mitigation project.

“$400 million creates a lot of wetland habitat. These projects, to completely construct, cost about $250,000 a piece to complete,” said Trimm, “and they work.”

Trimm cited Desert Wildlife Unlimited, Inc., which has successfully completed two separate wetland projects designed to purify water in the New River, and another two for the Alamo River. Maisonneuve said he was unfamiliar with those particular efforts.

Trimm also pointed to private efforts to reduce winds from picking up contaminants from exposed playa using waterless methods.

“When the playa is exposed, we’ve built up with tractor implements eighty-inch beds, so when the prevailing wind comes from the west, it all catches in these beds before it goes into the sea,” shared Trimm. “We’ve invited the IID and other agencies in the state to look and see [that] it works.”

Maisonneuve said his team were eager to get input from the community, and hoped those who had comments and suggestions would come forward. But some in Thursday’s audience inquired if there was a formal process to hear and evaluate such proposals.

“I think there’s got to be more talking between the community and the [state],” said Miguel, a resident of Brawley who attended the meeting and asked about a structured input process. “I think they’re doing most of the decision making without consulting the local experts.”

“The Salton Sea has been a political hot potato for the last 50 years,” said Trimm. “We have people from Sacramento who have no idea what is going on down here.”

Though Miguel agreed, he also felt that the evening was a step in the right direction.

“I’m looking forward to the next meeting.”