The Best Plan for the Salton Sea is Yet to Come

By Michael Cohen and Kim Delfino

This essay was originally printed in The Riverside Press-Enterprise on October 28.

Right in the middle of one of the driest deserts in North America lies California’s largest lake, the little-known and oft-maligned Salton Sea.  The Sea and its environs are one of the most important spots on the map for birds, with more than 400 species of birds – often numbering in the millions of individual birds – visiting the Sea every year.  Despite its importance, the Salton Sea is the Rodney Dangerfield of California’s lakes, enduring insult after insult.  Within the next 20-30 years, the Sea will be dealt the greatest insult, as the volume of water that sustains this 360-square mile lake will decrease by more than 40 percent, rapidly shrinking the lake and increasing the amount of dust and salt that blows through the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

For more than 40 years, Californians have been studying and debating ideas about saving the Salton Sea.  Now, for the first time, there are concrete plans for restoring the Sea and enough information to make educated decisions. This week, the California Department of Water Resources released its Draft Environmental Impact Report assessing eight ways to restore the Sea and laying out the consequences if we fail to act.

The Salton Sea is a huge body of water, almost 50 percent larger than the San Fernando Valley.  Not surprisingly, the scale and cost of the various restoration plans are also huge and complex.  Saving the Salton Sea will not be easy, or cheap.  Unfortunately, this is not a problem that California can simply ignore or dismiss.  Conditions at the Sea will change rapidly in coming years, with potentially catastrophic effects on human health and resultant litigation over who is responsible for the choking clouds of dust blowing off the dried Sea bed.  The region already is home to California’s highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate—increases in airborne dust will only impact more children, and possibly the region’s growing elderly population.  Beyond those human health impacts, failure to act will cost local and state taxpayers, as well as local property owners, far more in coming years than any action taken now to avoid a known hazard.

The eight restoration plans under consideration vary in scope, cost and time to complete.  Some prioritize economic development; some emphasize habitat creation; one seeks to minimize water requirements.  No single plan does a very good job of satisfying the primary legal mandate to maximize feasible fish and wildlife habitat while eliminating air quality impacts from the restoration project and protecting water quality. Fortunately, California has left the door open for a plan that mixes and matches elements from among the eight alternatives to satisfy the environmental and public health mandates as well as provide economic opportunity.

Of course, such compromise will not be perfect.  A compromise plan could include both a 10,000 acre recreational lake – more than twice the size of the next-largest existing lake in southern California – and sufficient wildlife habitat and air quality protection to address legal requirements.  Such a compromise plan would be faster and less costly to complete than the existing recreational plans, providing both economic and ecological benefits sooner – and more feasibly – than with any of the eight existing plans.  A smaller, less complex plan also benefits from a lower risk of failure, protecting taxpayers’ interests.

We no longer have the luxury of delay and inaction.  Even if the farmers, environmentalists, tribes, developers, and local communities agreed tomorrow on a compromise plan, it still will be years before construction begins, and many years after that before the project is completed.  Yet a failure to agree on a compromise plan will keep the Sea mired in inaction, and could squander our best opportunity for saving the Salton Sea.

The Sea is too important, and ultimately, too costly, not to save.  A compromise plan that does what the law requires—providing quality fish and wildlife habitat and protecting air and water quality—and creates recreational and economic opportunities may be the last, best chance for the Salton Sea.

Kim Delfino and Michael Cohen, of Defenders of Wildlife and the Pacific Institute respectively, are members of the Salton Sea Coalition, an organization dedicated to restoring the Salton Sea.  To view the Coalition’s assessment of the proposed restoration alternatives, visit http://www.saltonseacoalition.org/reportcard.