EL CENTRO — Jessica Humes, IID environmental projects manager, reported on the 2018/19 Salton Sea Air Quality Mitigation Program during the regular IID meeting Tuesday, June 4.
The report is in cooperation with the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District and included three parts.
The first was to estimate emissions and identify the highest priority areas of the exposed playa for specific dust control measures. As the Salton Sea continues to shrink until 2047, the estimated year the Sea will stabilize, it leaves behind a playa filled with toxic dirt. During periods of high winds, the dust is swept up making breathing difficult in the surrounding populated areas. The Imperial County has higher than normal allergy rates for children and adults according to county officials.
The IID has a two-pronged approach to lowering dust; roughening the soil and planting native vegetation that can survive the intense summer heat and salinity conditions.
According to Humes, 20,000 acres were exposed by the retreating sea, but only a small subset of that is potentially emissive requiring proactive dust control.
“The playa accounts for only 1% of total emissions within the Valley,” Humes said. “The IID has implemented 1,400 acres of proactive dust control projects in both Imperial and Coachella valleys. Contractors currently are implementing an additional 625 more dust control measures (roughening through tillage). Also, we have identified an additional 2,800 acres of playa for future dust control projects.”
A second goal of the report is to specify which of the two methods of dust control will work per location of the receding sea. Areas where the slope is gradual will show the highest amount of exposure, however, the west side of the sea has different mitigating factors than the east side which is buffeted by the large water mass. The western winds are the cause of most of the dust so the west side of the lake will not respond to roughening the soil as other areas would but must be controlled by planted native vegetation.
The third goal is to report on the actual progress of dust control implementation.
“How are we progressing on the playa surface roughening, are we keeping up with that?” Hanks asked Humes in relation to the third stated goal.
Humes answered that there were a few environmental hurdles that have set progress back. According to Humes, the Army Corp of Engineers considers 231 feet below sea level to be the Salton Sea’s ordinary high-water mark, and anything worked on below that level needs extra permitting from the Army Corp. The IID has hired environmental consultants to expedite the permits needed.
But until that paperwork is processed and approved, the IID can’t do projects on ground lower than 231 feet.
However, Humes said a contractor is out on the playa roughening 625 acres this year, and they are hoping to get additional acreage done in the near future. Humes reported the roughening works well.
Matt Dessert, county air pollution executive officer, said the pro-active dust control plan is a collaborative effort between the IID and county. He emphasized the need to keep the corporation and partnership intact, including the 10-year plan.
“The 10-year plan put together by a past IID board, which settled the lawsuit with the county, has legacy and strength in the messaging. Solidarity in the local community helps agencies do their work,” Dessert said.
Another stakeholder in the dust mitigation is the State of California which has stalled out on their dust control around Red Hill Bay, a local tourist spot and a popular ceremonial photo shoot.
IID directors Alex Cardenas and Jim Hanks both questioned the state’s lack of progress. Hanks said he couldn’t figure out what the state plan was as it seemed to be very expensive and convoluted. Cardenas wondered how to jumpstart the state plan, as when he last went out to Red Hill, the wind was intense as was the dust.
Humes said the state was looking for more grant money but has rebuffed IID’s attempts to help by roughening the soil as a way of dust control.
IID Water Manager Tina Shields said the state was trying to create a partially salty habitat with all the drains and New River, where it would be welcoming for wildlife to visit but not to stay. When wildlife remains too long there is a danger of selenium buildup which endangers the habitat.
“The ground belongs to us,” Shields said, “and the state is our tenant. We are trying to talk them into allowing the IID to till some of the newly exposed ground, but the state is resistant to the idea. If the IID can’t talk them into it, then as landlord, the IID will issue a letter to them saying they either do it or the IID will do it. It needs to be done.”