State and Feds Agree to Protect the Salton Sea

August 31, 2016, Lake Tahoe, Calif. —  A coalition of conservation groups – Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon California, the Pacific Institute and Sierra Club – today called on the State of California to use a new agreement with the Federal Government on the Salton Sea as a launching point for a renewed effort to get much-needed conservation projects started on the ground.

The state of California and the federal government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) today, affirming many goals already established by the state and creating new opportunities for geothermal energy development in the area. The MOU creates a policy framework for the two parties to work together. A related announcement from the federal government creates new opportunities for geothermal development in the area.

Due to existing agreements, the Salton Sea in 2018 will begin receiving substantially less water than in the past, eventually as much as 40 percent less. The shrinking sea could expose more than 60,000 acres of the lakebed, generating massive dust storms that could impair the health of 650,000 Californians. The Salton Sea ecosystem – currently host to more than 400 species of birds, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands, could collapse.

“We’re glad to see the federal government and state officials recognize what an important priority this is for California and the nation. Their collaboration could avoid an environmental disaster at the Salton Sea,” said Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife.

“While we now have a Memorandum of Understanding, there is still no understanding as to how California will achieve its goal of 25,000 acres of habitat and dust control projects at the Salton Sea in time to avert a regional public health and ecological catastrophe,” said Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate with the Pacific Institute.

“If the Salton Sea disappears, it will have devastating impacts on the surrounding frontline communities — largely made up of low-income, people of color — who already suffer from some of the worst air in the nation. This injustice must stop, and resources to protect our environment must move forward. Now it’s time to channel this state and federal collaboration into actual Salton Sea projects that benefit people and the ecosystem,” said Marina Barragan, organizer with the Sierra Club San Gorgonio Chapter and resident of Mecca, California.

“The White House announcement is step in the right direction for exploring geothermal around the Salton Sea. We know geothermal projects located on the exposed lakebed will reduce dust pollution and move us forward on our climate goals by while creating family-sustaining jobs and providing local revenues,” said Sarah Friedman, Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“This is the best opportunity we have had in years to make a real difference for the more than 650,000 people who live around the Salton Sea, as well as the birds and other wildlife that depend on this place for their survival,” said Audubon California executive director Brigid McCormack.

Read the White House press release here.

 

More Background on the Salton Sea

At the time it signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement in 2003, the state of California committed to funding restoration at the Salton Sea to address the widespread habitat loss and dust created by implementation of the agreement. Over the years, there have been legislative proposals, public hearings, and planning sessions – but little progress has been made on the ground. A task force created last year by California Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal for creating 25,000 acres restored of habitat and air quality protection projects, and that commitment was re-affirmed in today’s memorandum of understanding.

This goal is essential for ensuring that the Salton Sea does not become a public health threat to an area already suffering from the worst childhood asthma rates in the state.  It is also critical to ensure that the sea will continue to provide habitat for the millions of birds that travel along the Pacific flyway.

Almost 400 bird species rely on the deep water, shoreline, mudflats, and wetlands at the Salton Sea, as well as the river channels and agricultural drains leading into it. Tilapia live in the deeper waters, providing essential food for many species, including California brown pelican, American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, and Caspian tern. Perhaps the sea’s greatest value for birds is its ability to support very large numbers of waterbirds during the winter months, including up to 75 percent of North America’s eared grebes, 50 percent of ruddy ducks, and 30 percent of American white pelicans. The mudflats and shorelines are also essential for hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds.

 

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The Pacific Institute is a global water think tank that creates and advances solutions to some of the world’s most pressing water challenges through interdisciplinary research and by partnering with a variety of stakeholders. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute envisions a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.