Salton Sea Restoration Urged to Start Small, but Soon

By Stephen Siciliano
Sept. 28 — Rather than delay Salton Sea restoration efforts until a full plan is adopted, California should begin implementing smaller, “shovel ready” habitat projects while simultaneously developing mid- and long-term solutions, according to a state oversight agency report.

The Salton Sea, California's largest inland lake, was formed in the early 1900s when a flooding Colorado River breached several diversion canals, but it is imperiled by rapidly shrinking water levels resulting from evaporation and changes to water delivery contracts in Southern California.

The commission, comprised of members appointed by the governor and by the state Legislature, said that to head off the sea's demise, the state should prioritize its most important goals “instead of trying to make the lake all things to all people.”

Continued inaction, and the subsequent public health and environmental impacts, could undermine political support for a complex series of water transfers from Imperial Valley to San Diego established under the quantitative settlement agreement (QSA), the report said (2015 WLPM, 8/6/15).

The transfers threaten the Salton Sea's long-term viability because they are derived from the conservation of agricultural runoff that usually replenishes the body of water. The state agreed to mitigate negative environmental impacts to Salton Sea when the QSA was signed in 2003.

In the bigger picture, the report said, “California's fulfillment of its commitments are critical to its ability to negotiate future difficult agreements.”

Rather than risk the “enormous liabilities” associated with inaction and potential litigation, the report said, California “can be proactive, accept the responsibilities with which it has been entrusted, and turn a potential environmental failure into a success story.”

Window of Opportunity Closing

However, the window for achieving this, the commission said, “is steadily closing.”

In its analysis of restoration efforts to date, the commission expressed a preference for a 2007 Bureau of Reclamation strategy to “start small, learn, adapt and scale up” over the state Natural Resources Agency's $8.9 billion plan proposed in 2006, which, the report said, became a barrier to restoration.


The configuration of the 2006 plan, the state's preferred alternative, the commission said, was driven by the desire of local interests to make the Salton Sea the resort destination it had been in 1940s through 1960s.

“The glory days of the Salton Sea,” the report said, “were fed by bounteous agricultural runoff in an era when no one seriously questioned California's overuse of the Colorado River, before large portions of the Imperial Valley's water were redirected to urban users and when less-efficient irrigation practices were used than exist today.”

Refusal to acknowledge these changed conditions have hampered the development of a more realistic plan, said the commission.

Since 2013, the commission said in its report, the state has permitted and funded 640 acres of habitat for restoration.
“It should begin construction on those projects immediately,” while simultaneously developing second-phase projects, the report said.

Any restoration plan must preserve existing nesting and feeding grounds along its shores, or develop new ones for the millions of birds annually using the Salton Sea as a stopoff on the Pacific Flyway, the report said.

Momentum and Acceptance

In spite of past misfires, the commission said there is momentum on the restoration issue as “parties are finally accepting the idea of a smaller lake and incremental solutions.”

Equally encouraging are Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) establishment of a task force to advise him on restoration and his Sept. 15 appointment of an assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy.

The restoration process has long lacked a dedicated leader, and Brown's assistant secretary should assume that role, building stakeholder consensus “within realistic constraints” and identifying funding opportunities, the report said.


The commission suggested that a source of restoration funding could be developed by the sale of mitigation water intended for release into the Salton Sea to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region's largest water seller.

The commission will hold a hearing in April 2016 to measure the state's progress implementing already permitted projects and developing a larger restoration framework.


The Little Hoover Commission's conclusions are submitted to the governor and legislature for consideration.

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 lpearl@bna.com