Kamis, 08 April 2021

California spends $12.8M more on the Salton Sea, finally appoints analyst to study seawater importation - Desert Sun

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California remains far behind its targets for addressing exposed playa around the Salton Sea, according to data released in the 2021 Salton Sea Management Program annual report. But state officials expressed optimism in a public workshop that they are finally beginning to catch up to those goals.

The state was supposed to implement dust suppression projects or build wetlands habitat across 3,500 acres of exposed playa by the end of 2020 to tamp down dust that's imbued with a century's worth of salts, pesticides and other agricultural runoff. Only 755 acres around the mouth of the New River had been completed in that timeframe, although 2020 represented the first year that any state-led dust mitigation projects was finished at the lake.

The state set future annual goals for the acreage it needs to complete, and the frequency of benchmarks now begins picking up speed. Another 3,500 acres-worth of projects are due by the end of 2021.

"The enormity of the challenge of the Salton Sea, frankly, I think was paralyzing to state government for a long time,” California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. "The size, the cost, the complexity resulted in agencies not taking action.”

But, he added, “we’re now at a new phase, which is executing.”

The current iteration of the Salton Sea formed about 115 years ago, but its water level has been rapidly dropping ever since a 2003 deal sent Colorado River water — water that once flowed from Imperial Valley farm fields into the lake — elsewhere in Southern California. As this happened, more and more of the lakebed was exposed, making the sandy dirt liable to become airborne as dust.

Justine Herrig, a senior environmental scientist with the California State Water Resources Control Board, said in Wednesday's public meeting that the Salton Sea's surface elevation has dropped about 9.5 feet since 2003. She said there are an estimated 15,250 net acres of exposed lakebed known as playa, taking into account several thousand acres that have seen plants naturally spring up as the waterline recedes.

Is water importation the answer?

Also after much delay, the Natural Resources Agency — which is the lead agency in charge of addressing the lake's woes — is closing in on hiring an independent analyst to study the feasibility of water importation to the Salton Sea from either the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific Ocean.

Refilling the lake — which is roughly twice as salty as the ocean — is a long-shot idea, but it's one that has considerable support, especially around the Coachella Valley. The idea is seen by its proponents as the only way to fully save California's largest lake, although it's no easy ask. Such a massive water works project would cost somewhere between hundreds of millions of dollars and well into the billions of dollars and would likely require a binational agreement so water could flow across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a deal that's expected to be finalized by June 1, the University of California, Santa Cruz, will analyze 11 sea-to-sea water importation schemes that were submitted in 2018. The state had already begun studying these, but that process was halted in favor of relying on the opinion of an outside analyst. Two recent attempts to find someone willing to take on the challenge failed before the university stepped in.

“UC Santa Cruz has significant experience facilitating independent technical panels, and we are excited with the multidisciplinary approach they will take on this project,” Arturo Delgado, the Natural Resources Agency's Salton sea czar, said in a statement announcing the move. “We look forward to getting them officially on board so this work can get underway.”

Brent Haddad, a professor of environmental studies, will lead the university's team. They will be expected to complete their analysis by spring or summer of 2022, Delgado said Wednesday, as the agency must come up with a long-term Salton Sea plan by the end of that year.

Delgado also said he is considering reconvening the Long Range Planning Committee, perhaps quarterly, to help come up with future plans for Salton Sea dust mitigation and habitat restoration. Robert Terry, a Coachella Valley resident who has been active with that committee in the past, wrote in to The Desert Sun to say that it hadn't met in about two years.

"I wish I could see a brighter future for the Salton Sea," Terry said.

State money is waiting to be spent

According to the 2021 annual report, the state is sitting on a huge pile of cash available for work at the Salton Sea. The state has authorized $374.8 million for the program, 92% of which has been appropriated for specific uses. Still, by October of last year, the state had only spent $55.9 million of that, much of which went to "annual surveys" and "staffing and other design costs."

The previous year's annual report showed $43.1 million in cumulative expenditures, meaning about $12.8 million was used in the past year. The state also increased its total authorized pool of funding by $18 million in that timeframe.

Additionally, Delgado explained on Wednesday that the state is making progress on both environmental permitting of its projects as well as land access agreements, two of the main roadblocks slowing the state's progress.

He said the state is moving forward with the Desert Shores Channel Restoration Project, which is a citizen-led idea to pump water into the channels cut through the small town on the west side of the lake. Locals have been frustrated by what they perceived as the state and county slow-walking a shovel-ready project, but it now has some hope of success as it's being included in the state's permitting efforts.

“I’m really excited that we have sleeves rolled up in getting the project developed in Desert Shores,” Crowfoot said.

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But even the date of Wednesday's public forum was emblematic of the state's failures to address the receding Salton Sea and the air pollution impacting largely Latino communities nearby. The meeting was delayed several weeks after the 2021 annual report came in just under the wire, a fact for which Sean Maguire, a member of the water board, chastised the agency.

“I am completely humbled by the challenges of this program and the amount of work that needs to get done," Delgado acknowledged.

Mark Olalde covers the environment for The Desert Sun. Get in touch at molalde@gannett.com, and follow him on Twitter at @MarkOlalde.

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April 09, 2021 at 03:15AM
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California spends $12.8M more on the Salton Sea, finally appoints analyst to study seawater importation - Desert Sun

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