by Janet Zimmerman
Failure to revitalize the ailing Salton Sea would cost the region as much as $70 billion over the next three decades from lost habitat, plummeting property values and health problems caused by blowing dust, a new report finds.
The study, “Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea,” was released today by the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Oakland. It is the first work to assess the financial toll of not fixing the salty, fast-shrinking lake that straddles the Coachella and Imperial valleys.
At 376 square miles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake. But scientists are worried about dwindling water levels, made worse by a state-approved transfer that diverted water from farm fields and sends it to residents in San Diego. For years, runoff from irrigation sustained the Salton Sea.
Without it, scientists say the Salton Sea will continue to shrink and ultimately become too small and too salty to support fish and the hundreds of species of migrating birds that stop there to nest.
In addition, soil exposed by the retreating shoreline would be swept up by wind and contribute to air-quality problems in the basin, which includes about 650,000 people, state officials have said. The lake regularly releases hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. In 2012, a giant release of the foul-smelling gas was carried by a storm system more than 150 miles across Southern California, triggering hundreds of odor complaints to air regulators.
The Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen, lead author of the study, looked at the consequences of letting the sea go versus the estimated cost – $9.6 billion plus $150 million annually for maintenance and operations – of the state’s preferred plan for restoring the lake.
“Yeah, that’s a lot of money, but the cost of not doing anything is several times larger than that,” said Cohen, who has studied Salton Sea issues for nearly 20 years.
The California Natural Resources Agency recommended the plan in 2007, but no action has been taken by the Legislature. It would create habitat and a rock-filled barrier to support a marine sea, make a brine sink for depositing excess salts, implement measures for controlling dust, and establish an area for future geothermal energy generation.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has been pushing to have the land around Salton Sea designated as a renewable energy development focus area.
“This alarming report from the Pacific Institute highlights the urgent need to take action to protect the Salton Sea,” Boxer said in a statement. “If we work together, we can prevent a looming economic, environmental and public health crisis while also creating new jobs in clean energy at the Sea.”
The Pacific Institute research found a range of potential problems with inaction:
• Habitat loss: More than 400 species of birds use the Salton Sea. As the lake deteriorates, the size and quality of the habitat will diminish, reducing its value to birds that depend upon it. Cohen’s calculation is based on previous studies indicating that Californians are willing to pay about $60,000 per acre to preserve similar wetland habitats, such as Mono Lake. Cost: $10 billion to $26 billion by 2047.
• Health effects: Blowing dust will increase cases of asthma, cardiac disease, lung cancer and mortality rates in the region. Cost: $21 billion to $37 billion by 2047.
• Property values: Dust and noxious odors could depress real estate prices. Cost: $400 million.
• Recreation revenues: Visitation and direct recreation-related spending at attractions such as the Salton Sea State Recreation Area will continue to decline. Cost: $110 million to $150 million by 2047.
“I don’t know how you put a dollar figure on all the harm it’s going to do to the environment and our health,” said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, a board member on the Salton Sea Authority, which is overseeing the restoration.
Ashley said he was not surprised by the expense of not moving ahead with improvements at the lake, adding that he hopes it will spur action on restoration.
“The only time people get interested is if we have an unusual wind event that carries the smell” across Southern California, he said.