Imperial Irrigation District and Board of Supervisor boards flew to Sacramento with key personnel to plead the Valley’s case before the State Water Resource Control Board on the Salton Sea’s upcoming environmental demise.
Seven hours later, the State Water Board agreed to look into the dispute between California and the Imperial Valley as the Salton Sea’s future and the surrounding region teeter on major health problems as chemical and pollutants become exposed when the Sea begins to recede from the QSA rural to urban water transfer.
The QSA was signed upon the promise of the State mitigating the receding Salton Sea shoreline which exposes toxins that would dry, turn to dust and spread with the prevailing winds.
Inaccurately referred to as ‘an accidental sea’ caused by poorly engineered irrigation canals at the turn of the century, the Salton Sea has existed for millennia as a catch basin for the often-flooding Colorado River. At one point in the far past, the sea left a high water mark on the surrounding mountains.
However, the sea’s disappearance not only threatens the health of those living in Imperial and Riverside counties, but the migratory pathway of hundreds of thousands of birds that use the sea as a stop along their journey.
The Water Board has agreed to contact the various agencies and legislature committees to address the situation.
“The problem has been studied to death,” said Executive Director Thomas Howard. “The problem is very amenable to very complicated and expensive solutions.”
A solution favored by state bureaucrats in 2007 had a price tag of $8.9 billion. The plan became untenable during the legislature season and with the following recession, never was revived.
The board’s hearing was after the Imperial Irrigation District filed a petition, which has suggested that the board should amend its approval of the 2003 water deal between Imperial and the San Diego County Water Authority in order to require the state to fulfill its promise.
While the board made no promises about taking action, IID General Manager,Kevin Kelley, said he was pleased that the board at least said it would discuss the issue at a future meeting.
“The Salton Sea is not a fine wine; it doesn’t improve with age,” Kelley said.
To sell water to San Diego County, Imperial Valley farmers have had to fallow land – 50,000 acres last year. A reduction in water used for irrigation means less runoff water into the Salton Sea; runoff is a major source of replenishment for the sea.
Under the water deal approved in 2003, the IID was required to put water directly into the sea, slowing but not halting its decline. But that requirement lapses in 2017, when the rate of shrinkage is expected to increase dramatically without the extra water.
Dr. Stephen Munday, Imperial County health officer, said that he has already seen the effect of unhealthy air on his patients. “I’m gravely concerned for their health in the future,” he said.
In 2012, westward winds brought a rotten-egg stench from the Salton Sea over much of Southern California. The smell caught everyone’s attention of what the future may entail without State action.
At the Sacramento board meeting, several speakers made ominous comparisons to the dust storms at Owens Lake, which had considerable water until much of it was diverted for use in Los Angeles.
“The Salton Sea is three times larger than Owens Lake and the destruction caused by inaction will likely be three times worse,” said Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley.
While there is nothing approaching an overall plan for the Salton Sea, there are several smaller projects, mostly to preserve the sea as a place for fish and migratory birds. Many of the smaller ideas have proven successful locally and are amenable to larger scale projects. However, funding remains the reason nothing has been started.
“It’s hard to plan around an uncertain funding level,” said Kealii Bright, deputy secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency.
Without the Legislature’s promise, it is doubtful that the Imperial Irrigation District board would have approved the 45-year deal, touted as the largest farm-to-cities water sale in the nation. Even with the promise, the vote was 3 to 2 and the board member who supplied the swing vote was defeated in the next election.
The state’s failure to follow through has left a residue of bitterness.
“Where I come from, your word is your bond,” said Ryan Kelley. “The state of California has failed to honor its bond.”