Salton Sea Plan Calls for $3.15B Restoration Effort

By Stephen Siciliano

July 29—Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and Imperial County have released a $3.1 billion framework for restoring the Salton Sea and urged the state of California to meet its obligation and join them in implementing the plan “beginning immediately” so as to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

The plan calls for a “smaller but sustainable” Salton Sea that would limit fugitive dust from exposed shoreline, protect the avian Pacific Flyway from collapse and boost economic opportunity in a depressed region through the development of geothermal energy resources around the lake.

“This solution will also preserve the quantification settlement agreement (QSA) water transfers that are critical for Southern California's water supply reliability,” IID and the county said. The QSA, signed in 2003, called for a transfer of water out of Imperial County to San Diego that would be achieved through the conservation of farm runoff normally destined for the lake.

As part of the QSA, the state of California agreed to pay for restoration so as to mitigate air quality problems due to exposed shoreline laced with agricultural pesticides, as well as the degradation of wildlife habitat.

The two-part, 260-page framework divides implementation into short-term (2016-2017), medium-term (2018-2023) and long-term (2024 and beyond) phases.

The county and irrigation district said that, although Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has expressed reservations about paying for restoration through the state's general fund, if other ideas fail, California's obligation is to do just that.

Funding Proposal

As an alternative, the framework would have the state allocate $150 million from Proposition 1, a 2014 water bond initiative, to pay for approved projects that would cover the Salton Sea's exposed shoreline with shallow water and riparian habitat in the short-term phase.

The plan calls for another $1 billion to be invested in renewable energy whose facilities would cover more of the exposed shoreline. The money would represent an equity stake in a public/private venture between the framework's authors and private firms and be parceled out over the next five years.

Another $1 billion would be financed through revenue bonds issued over the next 10 years and secured through proceeds from geothermal leases. Finally, the county and district called for an additional $1 billion in proceeds from California's cap-and-trade program auctions.

The mid-term phase involves “substantial investment” in habitat restoration to offset declining water levels, and renewable energy projects would be an important part of funding such efforts.

Solar, Other Renewable Sources Planned

The plan envisions the transmission of 1,500 megawatts (MW) in solar and other renewable sources in the mid-term phase to go along with a projected 1,250 MW of geothermal energy. In the long-term phase, these quantities would be increased to 2,000 MW and 1,700 MW, respectively, by 2030.

Overall, the third phase would address a Salton Sea reduced by 100 square miles and continued effort to cover exposed areas “with water and vegetation habitat or by some form of renewable energy development,” according to the plan.

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when a Colorado River levee was breached, allowing water to spill into an ancient depression known as the Salton Sink for about three years. In the 1950s and 1960s, it served as one of Southern California's most popular tourist attractions, drawing anglers and boating enthusiasts alike.

Although in decline because of a lack of natural inflow in succeeding decades, the Salton Sea's health took an accelerated turn for the worse upon the QSA's signing. The agreement called for a transfer of water out of Imperial County to San Diego that would be achieved through the conservation of farm runoff normally destined for the lake.

In 2006, the state's Natural Resources Agency proposed a $9 billion plan that was never funded by the Legislature. In 2018, releases of mitigation water by IID into the sea will cease altogether, accelerating its decline.

Decision Reached to Restore Sea

In 2003, Imperial County joined numerous plaintiffs in litigation challenging the IID's role as co-signatory, but as that process wound down in 2013, the two sides agreed to work on restoring the Salton Sea, which they viewed as crucial to the QSA's survival.

As the report's executive summary said, “IID only agreed to the QSA based on the written commitment by the state of California to restore the Salton Sea if it were proven to be feasible.” 

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Siciliano in Los Angeles at correspondents@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at mailto:%20lpearl@bna.com