When the largest farm-to-city water transfer was approved in 2003, the state of California gave itself a 15-year period to find a solution to the receding Salton Sea waterline — an environmental disaster waiting to happen.
Those 15 years are up. The mitigation water the Imperial Irrigation District was obligated to divert to the Salton Sea has come to an end, and it’s expected the lake’s receding water rate will speed up starting this year, increasing the risk of developing respiratory diseases through the Imperial and Coachella valleys.
Although the state is considerably behind in its efforts, in 2017, there were important administrative milestones reached that are expected to allow the Natural Resources Agency to have a streamlined process. Those milestones include the release of its 10-year plan and the adoption of the stipulated order to the water order from the quantification settlement agreement.
In 2018, the state will be concentrating its efforts to build habitat and dust suppression projects in the south end of the sea, west of the New River, in the Torres Martinez reservation area and Desert Shores.
Under the stipulated order, which was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board in November, the state must cover a specific amount of acreage around the sea each year — for 2018 the state will have to build projects that cover 500 acres. The total acreage to be covered will increase with time and by the end of the 10-year plan, 30,000 acres are expected to have been covered.
The project that is further along is the Red Hill Bay project, located in the southeastern corner of the lake, and is expected to cover more than 500 acres with shallow water habitat that will blend the Salton Sea and Alamo River water.
Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy for the CNRA Bruce Wilcox said most of the earthwork has been completed, with grading and pump installation coming next.
The Species Conservation Habitat Project, which is a designed project for the southwestern corner of the lake, is expected to cover 640 acres and is currently in the permitting phase. Wilcox said he hopes all of the necessary paperwork will be completed soon so construction can begin in the second half of this year.
After strong support from its community, the Desert Shores Keys Project has also been added to the 10-year program, which will be updated later this month.
The Desert Shores Restoration and Dust Mitigation Pilot Project consists of a berm installed to block the water within the 28-acre channel that has disconnected from the Salton Sea. It will allow imported water pumped from the sea to remain in the keys, which will prevent playa from being exposed to residents.
Since the first version of the plan was unveiled, residents criticized the state’s plan since it didn’t include any habitat or dust suppression projects in the area where people live. After the community of Desert Shores worked independently to restore the keys and pleaded their case to the state, the CNRA is now on board.
“I think there is a desire to help those communities to the extent we can,” Wilcox said. “We’ve always had dust suppression projects in the area, but the community badly wants the harbor to be restored, and we want to see if we can make it work. These residents are also stakeholders in this process.”
He also noted the permitting process for that project is expected to be lengthy and extensive.
In addition to the continued work on the current projects, the state will also be active in three other matters related to the Salton Sea — the review of the request for information regarding water importation projects, continue to work on the Long Range Plan, and carry out outreach in order to ensure the passage of SB 5, a $4.1 billion park bond that includes $190 million for the Salton Sea Management Program.
Although permitting and land-use issues are time-consuming challenges that lay ahead, the most crucial element of the plan is to be fully-funded, which at the time it’s not. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $80.5 million from the water bond (Prop 1) for the Salton Sea Management Program while the expected total cost for the 10-year plan is expected to be $393 million. Even if SB 5 is passed in June, there will still be a shortfall of more than $100 million to fully fund the 10-year plan.
“The biggest challenge is we still don’t have all the funding for the full 10-year plan, we have enough money for the first few years, but after that, we still got funding issues so we’ll have to keep thinking on different funding sources as we move forward,” Wilcox said.
So far the CNRA has separated the first $20 million for consulting and permitting, and the remaining $60 million for building projects which have yet to be used as the Red Hill Bay and Species Conservation Habitat are funded through other means.
Imperial Irrigation District Governmental Affairs Officer Antonio Ortega said that in their perspective, there is still too little progress to show for on the ground since many of the projects have been delayed in the permitting process. He added, the IID — among other stakeholders — will push for the CNRA to make use of the available funds to get projects built.
One of the most critical issues that the state — along with local and regional stakeholders — will have to focus on is their efforts to ensure the passage of SB 5, which can be a major push toward building needed dust suppression projects. If the park bond is not approved, it would be a major setback and the state will have to find other ways to pay for the projects.
Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at email@example.com or 760-337-3440.
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