A version of this essay was originally printed in the San Diego Union Tribune on October 10, 2009.
The Legislature and much of California remain locked in a fight over the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Not so long ago, there was a similar fight over California’s other major water source, the Colorado River.
Six years ago today, Southern California urban and agricultural water agencies signed an historic agreement that reallocated billions of gallons of California’s share of the Colorado River. The agreement, signed in the waning days of Gov. Gray Davis’s administration and in the face of great pressure from the federal government and the other six states that depend upon Colorado River water, implemented the largest transfer of water from farmers to urban users ever seen.
To date, the Imperial Valley has sent nearly a quarter of a million acre-feet of water to San Diego County — enough to meet the annual water demand of 2 million people. San Diego has paid more than $70 million, adjusted for inflation, for this water, and spent almost as much again to transport it. Over the next six years, as the annual transfer volume increases, Imperial will send more than twice as much water to San Diego.
One of the biggest impediments to signing the 2003 agreement was responsibility for impacts to the Salton Sea. The sea, the largest lake in California, boasts the second-highest diversity of bird species in the U.S. and at times feeds and shelters hundreds of thousands of birds.
The water Imperial sends to San Diego was to come from improvements in efficiency, such as lining canals and pump-back systems on farm fields. But, in a cruel irony, such efficiency would come directly at the expense of water flowing to the Salton Sea. Less water would mean the lake — which has no outlet — would shrink, degrading water quality and exposing thousands of acres of former lake bed to the harsh desert winds, kicking up dust that could impair human health and crop production downwind. To offset these impacts, the water agencies agreed to fallow farmland instead of lining canals, and to send additional water to the sea to make up for the losses caused by fallowing, until 2018.
For its part, the state committed to develop a restoration plan for the sea and deliver this plan to the Legislature for authorization and funding. The state also committed to assume responsibility for air-quality management and other environmental impacts, once the water agencies had spent about $156 million (adjusted for inflation) on such costs. The state’s liability was later estimated to exceed $800 million.
Six years later, where are we? The surface of the Salton Sea has fallen about 2.5 feet, decreasing the lake’s maximum depth by about 5 percent. The sea has shrunk, exposing some 7,800 acres of former lake bed. The total volume of the sea has dropped by almost 8 percent, salinity has increased by about 8 percent, and overall water quality has declined. The corvina and other sportfish that used to attract anglers disappeared several years ago. Tilapia are the only fish still abundant in the sea, but eventually they too will succumb to the increasingly poor water quality.
California met its requirement to develop a restoration plan and submitted it to the Legislature in May 2007. Senate Bill 187, enacted last year to authorize some initial “no regrets” activities at the sea, marks the only new legislation on behalf of the sea. Yet California’s recurring budget problems have delayed even these limited activities. Six years after the signing of the agreement, the state has spent some $20 million on consultants and meetings, but has almost nothing on the ground to show for it. In the next several weeks, the state and the water agencies will install six air-quality monitoring stations around the sea, to start to monitor dust emissions. The Torres-Martinez tribe has constructed an impressive 85-acre wetland on the north end of the sea, and the federal government built a 100-acre wetland at the south end, though that’s in danger of being abandoned by the end of the year. Six years after the historic agreement, that’s all we have on the ground at the Salton Sea.
What we don’t have is a feasible long-term plan for the sea. We don’t have a governance structure for developing and implementing a plan. We don’t have a sign that the state is serious about the future of the sea. In 2018 — in less than a decade — the sea will begin a rapid and catastrophic decline, and the state will be in crisis mode yet again.
The water transfer and the Salton Sea were to be a test case of how California could move water while protecting public health, local economies, and dependent ecosystems. Six years later, California has done little to instill confidence that it takes its responsibilities seriously, or that it will take the actions necessary to protect public health and rescue imperiled ecosystems.
Michael Cohen is a senior associate with the Pacific Institute and was a member of California’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee. He has written several reports and articles about the Salton Sea.