Vision cast for Salton Sea action plan

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Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy, addresses dignitaries and local leaders Thursday. The edge of the sea formerly reached where Wilcox was standing, but now can only be seen in the distance. Photo by Brett Miller.

RED HILL MARINA — Lawmakers, investors, and local leaders concerned about the future of the Salton Sea gathered Thursday afternoon at the Red Hill Marina at the Salton Sea to mark the progress of preservation efforts, including that morning’s release of the Salton Sea Management Program 10-Year Plan.

The plan revealed the expected exposure rate of the playa from 2018 to 2028, the proposed projects which focus on keeping the exposed playa wet or vegetated, and the costs for those projects, estimated to cost $383 million over ten years.

Thursday’s event marked the continued focus on the preservation of the Salton Sea as a natural habitat and recreational landmark, as well as on the mitigation of health hazards associated with contaminants from the increasingly exposed playa.

California Senator Ben Hueso and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia hosted the event and were recognized during the presentation for their funding advocacy for the restoration efforts. Brawley Union High School history teacher Jose Flores accompanied eight of his students to the presentation, each of whom have suffered from asthma while living in the Imperial Valley.

Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for the Salton Sea policy of California’s Natural Resources Agency, announced the release of the highly-anticipated plan and spoke about the current status of the sea.

“Most of the playa that you see out here, including the road you drove in on, was underwater in 2004. If we don’t do anything, you can expect to see the playa extend a couple of miles,” Wilcox told the audience, pointing toward the disappearing sea.

Wilcox addressed concerns of delays about the plan’s release, and suggested a combination of factors that contributed to the plan’s postponement, including the complexity of the issue, political concerns, and the enormous amount of funds required.

“We’re behind. There’s no question about it. You can look up over my shoulder and see that,” he said.

Wilcox was optimistic, however, and pointed to the design of the plan, which allowed incremental projects to be completed as funding became available, as opposed to waiting for a lump sum to be granted before work could start.

Funding is still recognized as the project’s biggest obstacle.

“The 10-Year management plan needs more funding. The long-range plan needs more funding,” admitted Wilcox.

“On an annual basis, if we ask for $25 million or $50 million to move these programs forward, that’s a little bit less of a [request]. But that’s still going to be very, very difficult.”

A few local officials also spoke about the restoration efforts. Holtville Mayor Jim Predmore focused on where the water necessary for these projects would originate. According to Wilcox, water from the sea would be mixed with agricultural run-off to create the wetlands, until other sources became available. Currently, the IID is sending water into the Salton Sea, as part of its agreement in selling water to San Diego, but will no longer be obligated to do so come December of 2017.

Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley noted that preservation of the shoreline was crucial, but not the whole picture.

“The long-term plan is the next question,” Kelley said.

Wilcox indicated his hope that the plan would help mobilize both local and state efforts to address all the issues involved. Apart from reducing exposed playa, the sea’s salinity levels and risk of high contamination from the New River and agricultural run-off has been a subject of much controversy.

But Chris Schoneman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said he felt that the danger of human exposure from the Salton Sea has been over-exaggerated.

“The State of California monitors the water quality every year, and it turns out that in the last few weeks, there has been some blue-green algae,” explained Schoneman about the recent bloom. “It can get out of balance, and can be toxic to wildlife. So the state has put up these warning signs for people. They’re monitoring it, and they’re letting the people know.”

Schoneman compared the Salton Sea notice to the numerous times cities in the San Diego and Orange County areas had closed their beach access due to human waste.

“This is the first time I am aware of that they had put up these notices about the Salton Sea,” noted Schoneman, who has been working in the Salton Sea area since the early 1990s.

Concerning the recent sewage leaks into the New River originating from Mexicali and draining into the sea, Schoneman pointed to testing.

“The water, the animals, the mud, the little bugs that the birds feed on, they’ve all been tested for contaminates, and it’s never been at a problem level. There’s a lot of biological activity and degradation that goes on in the New River: it’s 60 miles or so by the time the water gets to the Salton Sea. There’s all kinds of opportunity for bacteria to consume it, respirate it, and transform it into decomposed forms. It’s no longer its original form when it enters into the Salton Sea.”

When asked about the money spent on surveys and testing over the years, Schoneman agreed that there was a high demand for actionable steps to be taken.

“That message is loud and clear. It’s time to actually get something built,” he said.