Water Board Skewered For Failing to Fix Salton Sea | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Water Board Skewered For Failing to Fix Salton Sea

Residents and officials living near California’s Salton Sea skewered the state water board in Sacramento on Tuesday for dragging their feet to solve the lake’s steady shrinking.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Residents and officials living near California’s Salton Sea skewered the state water board in Sacramento on Tuesday for dragging their feet to solve the lake’s steady shrinking.

“You assigned a task force to address this problem, but neither the task nor the force were sufficient to meet the scope of the problem,” Imperial Irrigation District general manager Kevin Kelley told the five-person State Water Resources Control Board. “The state has dithered and called it due diligence. We have a ticking time bomb and you’ve treated it like a beach ball at a backyard picnic.”

He added: “The Salton Sea is no picnic.”

Kelley expressed the frustrations of many local officials and residents who made the long trip to Sacramento to harangue the water board into moving more expeditiously on a series of projects designed to combat the public health problems associated with the Salton Sea.

The sea, located in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, is the Golden State’s largest lake at nearly 350 square miles. It was created accidentally in 1905, after engineers attempting to create agricultural irrigation canals from the Colorado River allowed an overflow that poured into the valley.

It is an extremely saline water body, with a salt density greater than that of the Pacific Ocean and rapidly increasing. It is also shrinking, thanks in large part to a 2003 agreement between the San Diego Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District that allowed for larger transfers of water from the Colorado River to San Diego – meaning less water is siphoned off the river for the Salton Sea.

As a result, the Salton Sea is shrinking by about 1,300 acres per year, with about 15,000 acres of playa exposed since 2000. By the end of 2017, much of the water that has traditionally been redirected to the Salton Sea will no longer be available under the terms of the agreement, meaning the rate of exposure will triple to about 4,100 acres per year.

Aside from the threats to bird habitat — the sea functions as a vital stopping point in the Pacific Flyway for a vast assortment of migratory birds — the receding waters expose large swaths of playa which, once dry, creates dust and dust storms. The dust has already begun to dramatically impact human health, according to officials present at the meeting.

“This coarse dust can cause chronic human health effects because it gets deep into the lungs,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California.

Health problems such as asthma in children, impairment in proper lung development, wheezing, chronic bronchitis and even more serious diseases such as emphysema are associated with the type of exposure to dust that many near the Salton Sea are forced to deal with presently — and which figures to get worse in short order.

Multiple reports indicate the rates of asthma-related hospitalizations of children are already the highest in the state for communities that surround the Salton Sea.

Officials in the federal and state government are aware of the problem.

In his visit to Lake Tahoe this past summer, President Barack Obama touted the federal government’s commitment to combatting the Salton Sea problem. He announced new fundraising goals through the Water Fund Initiative and the pursuit of renewable energy projects in the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley area, including the construction of geothermal plants.

Simultaneously, California Gov. Jerry Brown earmarked about $80 million for restoration projects on the Salton Sea when he unveiled his proposed budget earlier this year. He also created the Salton Sea Task Force.

"The Salton Sea has a long and storied history in California and with these key restoration projects, the state is helping protect air quality while maintaining a viable water supply in the region," Brown said when he announced the task force.

On Tuesday, Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, revealed a 10-year plan that will focus on the construction of canals capable of bringing fresh water from the Alamo and New Rivers, intended to offset anticipated depletions in runoff.

The plan also calls for the creation of artificial wetlands, shallow ponds to be built on the outskirts of the lake to create a buffer that accommodates birds and reduces the amount of dust from the receding waters.

Along with Wilcox, a consortium of experts from the Desert Research Institute, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District and other agencies offered ideas about dust control. These included simple tactics like creating furrows and more complex ideas like installing hay bales to block dust and protect the growing conditions of natural vegetation.

But for local officials on the cusp of a public health crisis, the ideas were just more hollow talk from a state whose agencies have known about the impending calamity for more than a decade and have consistently dragged their feet.

“The state has not met its obligations,” said Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at Pacific Institute.

“These are the same recycled themes we have been hearing in our community for a long time,” said Ryan Kelley, an Imperial County supervisor and Kevin Kelley’s brother. “We need a sense of urgency with those that are employed in this effort.”

He said part of the problem is that the voices of those in the Coachella Valley are drowned out by more powerful voices in San Diego.

Many of the communities surrounding the Salton Sea are comprised of majority Latino populations who don’t have the same income levels as people in San Diego.

“The one thing that has not proceeded in fits and starts is the transfer of water (to San Diego),” Kevin Kelley said. “There have been zero delays in the stream of delivery.”

Imperial County counsel Katherine Turner said the county is already moving toward enforcement when large dust storms occur, issuing abatement orders and requiring property owners to pursue costly mitigation efforts. The problem is that these mitigation efforts will happen piecemeal, rather than part of a comprehensive plan.

“You might get gravel where you thought you were getting wildlife habitat,” she said.

Following county officials, a string of residents stood up to address the board about their frustrations and fears.

By that time the board was whittled down to two, with the other three board members apparently having more important priorities than listen to members of a community on the verge of the state’s most significant public health crisis.

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