Save the Salton Sea

Legislators should release $47 million to launch restoration

By Michael Cohen and Gary Wyatt

A version of this essay was originally printed in the Riverside Press-Enterprise on August 15, 2008.

The public health and ecological crises developing around southeastern California’s long-neglected Salton Sea are finally getting legislative attention.

On Aug. 7, the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed SB 187, sending it on to the full Legislature. The Legislature now has the opportunity to take initial steps toward satisfying the obligations toward the sea that the state assumed in 2003.

It has been five years since the Legislature passed three bills committing the state — and taxpayers — to covering the costs of managing Salton Sea dust emissions and other effects of the 2003 transfer of water from Imperial Valley agriculture to urban San Diego.


The Legislature has a legal obligation to protect air quality at and around the Salton Sea and the responsibility to act quickly to protect threatened ecosystems.

As the sea shrinks because of the transfer and other factors, it exposes a dusty lakebed in a region already plagued by poor air quality and disproportionately high rates of childhood asthma. Some dust already blows from the sea’s exposed bed, impairing health in the fast-growing Coachella and Imperial valleys. Without action from the Legislature, in less than 10 years these dust storms — and their effect on public health — will be much worse.

The state’s 2003 commitments also include the development of a plan to restore the sea’s imperiled ecosystem, home to the endangered desert pupfish and more than 400 species of birds, including pelicans, avocets, skimmers, stilts, ducks and grebes, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Fortunately, habitat restoration also provides air-quality protection, offering multiple benefits for every dollar invested. But the three 2003 bills did not specifically authorize funds for habitat restoration or air-quality protection.

Entice Congress

In 2006, the state estimated the cost of managing the sea’s dust emissions at about $800 million, plus another $48 million a year for operations and maintenance costs that will continue, every year, through 2077. Costs have certainly risen since 2006 and could run taxpayers more than $1 billion.

Legislative inaction will mean that we’ll face even greater costs later. Meanwhile, the health and welfare of the people of the Imperial and Coachella valleys will continue to be recklessly threatened.

To move the work forward, California voters approved Prop. 84 in 2006, which included $47 million to pay for initial Salton Sea restoration efforts. That bond money is there, but spending it requires clear authorization from the Legislature. SB 187 would provide that authorization.

The good news is that, unlike the other water crises challenging the state, broad consensus on what needs to be done now at the sea exists. Farmers, water agencies, local governments, recreational interests and environmentalists agree on the substance and importance of the state’s proposed five-year Period I activities, to implement “no regrets” habitat and air-quality projects — projects whose benefits equal or exceed their costs.

So despite the budget crisis, California has money to pay for its initial Salton Sea pilot projects, to inform the design and construction of the full-scale habitat and air-quality management project necessary to protect public health and the imperiled ecosystem. And once the state demonstrates financial commitment, Congress will be more likely to appropriate $30 million in Salton Sea funds authorized under the Water Resources Development Act.

Failure to secure passage of SB 187 could have broad ramifications throughout California.

The state’s willingness to accept liability for air-quality effects and responsibility for addressing ecological rehabilitation at and around the sea proved decisive in reaching the 2003 agreement that allocates 4.4 million acre feet of Colorado River water among four Southern California water agencies that serve millions of people. Without the state’s 2003 commitments, this agreement would have collapsed, and urban Southern California’s water supply would be in even greater jeopardy.

Liability Looms

The Legislature now has the legal obligation to protect air quality at and around the Salton Sea and the responsibility to act quickly to protect threatened ecosystems. Failure to act will damage the credibility of the state in negotiating future water transfer agreements and may well expose the state to additional liability.

The Legislature should enact SB 187 and set the sea on the road to recovery, protecting public health and enabling stakeholders to roll up their sleeves and get to work on resolving the sea’s long-term future.

Michael Cohen is a senior associate with the Pacific Institute and a member of the Salton Sea Coalition. Gary Wyatt is chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and a member of the Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors.

Note: On August 19 the Senate gave final legislative approval to SB 187 to help get the restoration work going at the Salton Sea, establishing the ground rules for spending $47 million in previously-approved bond funds to aid the dying sea.

The bill previously was amended in a Senate committee to state that it doesn’t endorse the full $8.9 billion restoration plan developed by state and local representatives.
As approved, the $47 million will go toward projects in what’s known as Period One (throug 2013) of restoration work outlined in the Resources Agency plan.

Period One has $508 million of mostly unfunded budget and calls for a variety of work including initial projects to preserve endangered fish population as well as developing a baseline of data on air, fish, birds, sea sediment.