(CN) – Residents and officials who packed a yacht club on the north shore of the Salton Sea in Southern California on Tuesday vented their anger about what they perceive as unnecessary delays and obfuscations about the environmental and public health disaster unfolding here.
The California Water Resources Control Board held the workshop at the North Shore Yacht and Beach Club designed to both inform the public and garner the opinions and experiences of residents living in proximity to the sea, which is rapidly vanishing into the desert.
“Some people say that an environmental disaster is imminent here at the Salton Sea,” said Thomas Tortez, the tribal chairperson of the Torres Martinez Desert Cuihilla Indians. “It is already happening.”
The Salton Sea is receding due to evaporation. Its surface level has sunk about eight feet since 2003, exposing vast desert acreage. The exposed playa, as it’s called, dries and gets kicked up by the strong winds endemic to the area, creating a serious public health problem for the inhabitants who live nearby.
Asthma rates for residents of Imperial and Riverside counties, and particularly those who live nearby the sea, are some of the highest in California.
The Salton Sea’s role as an important stop for migratory birds has also been steadily impaired. As the sea evaporates, water salinity increases and fish die off – meaning birds who stop off at the sea on their journeys have no food to sustain them.
“We have seen a major reduction in fish-eating birds like pelicans, cormorants and grebes,” said Andrea Jones of Audubon California.
Part of the equation for the sea’s drop is evaporation, given the Salton Sea is located in the extremely arid desert just south of Palm Springs and about 50 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the other part of the equation involves declining flows from the Colorado River, a source of consternation for water managers who are attempting to rejuvenate the flailing sea.
On Tuesday, representatives from the seven states that siphon water from the Colorado River – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – were in Phoenix to sign a raft of paperwork finalizing the Drought Contingency Plan to be presented to Congress.
The Colorado River supplies water to more than 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland throughout the seven states via a series of irrigation canals and reservoirs. Those reservoirs have been depleted severely in recent years due to a combination of prolonged drought, overuse and higher temperatures compounded by a changing climate.
To combat the problem all 10 representatives spent years and countless hours trying to hammer out agreements on mandatory cuts should reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell dip below a certain level.
That effort culminated in the vote to ratify the agreement and send it to Washington, D.C., but notably, the Imperial Irrigation District – the biggest water user of the 10 – voted no.
James Hanks, the director of the Imperial Irrigation District, said the other agencies betrayed residents around Salton Sea by not including language that mandated some flow be routinely allotted to the desiccating sea.
“As we gather here today on the shores of the Salton Sea, amid bird bones, dust and asthmatic children, they are popping champagne in Phoenix,” Hanks told the water resources control board during the workshop.
The irony is that due to record precipitation in areas across the American West, the contingency plan may not have to be enacted in the coming year, or even the year after that. Current snowpack in the Upper Basin, where the river draws most of its water, is 140 percent of average.
But officials caution that one year of good precipitation doesn’t mean the water supply problems of the Colorado River Basin are a thing of the past.
“These developments may lessen the chance of shortage in 2020,” said Terry Fulp, a regional director with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in a statement. “However, one near- or even above-average year will not end the ongoing extended drought experienced in the Colorado River Basin and does not substantially reduce the risks facing the basin.”
It’s why Hanks and other officials with the Imperial Irrigation District remain irked that the contingency plan, which will likely be the template for all plans going forward, contains no provisions for the Salton Sea.
“What I’ve learned is that wealth trumps public health,” he told the control board.
While Imperial Irrigation District officials criticized the federal government and its water agency partners, many of the residents complained the state is moving too slowly to soften the problems from the diminishing sea, including the planting of trees to cut down dust and the restoration of creeks and tributaries designed to help fish.
“You guys need to get off the stick,” said Robert Terry of the Salton Sea Coalition to the water board members. “When are we going to see some action?”