Stephanie Dashiell, California Desert Associate
The excessive heat warnings are not the only reason the Salton Sea is appearing in the news this summer. The Salton Sea is the 525-square-mile saline lake in California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys created when the Colorado River flooded in 1905 –In 2003, the State of California and four large Southern California public water districts agreed to transfer 300,000 acre-feet (or, the amount of water that would supply about 300,000 families per year) of the Colorado River westward from the agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley to the golf courses and swimming pools of San Diego. Last month, a California judge upheld this farm to city water transfer as the latest development in a ten year legal battle. This means that the agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, which is the lake’s only water inflow (yet another example of the severe state of upset that our environment is in), will cease, and the Salton Sea could recede at the rate of six feet per year, causing a number of serious problems for humans and wildlife alike.
Impacts of a Dying Sea
Although mitigation components had been part of the 2003 agreement and plans for further mitigation are being made, the water transfer is currently happening and by 2017 will have already begun to impact the Sea and surrounding environment. Lacking its traditional water source now re-routed to San Diego, as the Sea recedes, it will expose fine-grained sand playas to the area’s typical high speed winds, and could likely cause a billion-dollar air quality problem for Imperial and Riverside counties. And air pollution is not the only environmental catastrophe that awaits us if the Salton Sea dries up – loss of habitat for fish, migratory birds and other wildlife presents even more reason for concern.
Over 400 species of birds use the Salton Sea for breeding or feeding throughout the year, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of individuals that use the lake as a migration stopover on their way south, or as a primary wintering habitat. Close to 80% of the American white pelican population winters at the Salton Sea. Considering that California has lost almost 90% of its wetlands which once served as primary habitat for migrating birds and waterfowl, the Salton Sea has become an extremely important wetland and stopover locale for these species, especially as the Sea is host to a designated national wildlife refuge.
As water evaporates (it is estimated that 1.1 million acre-feet of water evaporate per year) from the Salton Sea, the remaining water is becoming increasingly more saline and inhospitable to the fish, and the birds that depend on those fish as a food source.
So, what is California doing to avoid a catastrophe?
Little Progress, Lots of Problems
To date, not much progress has been seen on the ground at the Salton Sea. While the State of California is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the impacts of the water transfer are moderated, it has failed to adopt a plan for dealing with the eventual ecological collapse and public health disaster facing this remote corner of the state. The last plan to address the Salton Sea landed with a thud in the California Legislature due to an $8 billion price tag. Under that plan, doing nothing to restore the Salton Sea would still cost the state $1 billon just to mitigate for the air quality, water quality and wildlife impacts from a dying Sea.
However, this year, a few rays of hope for the Salton Sea have begun to emerge. On June 27, Governor Brown committed $30 million in California’s state budget to be allocated to build a few hundred acres of bird habitat at the Salton Sea. While this funding will only build a small fraction of the total number of wildlife habitat acres needed to compensate for the shrinking Sea, we hope that this project, in conjunction with other local habitat projects, will provide a start to a longer-term effort to help the birds, and fish that feed them, as the Sea recedes. In addition, the state budget also included $2 million for a study of new potential methods to cope with the Salton Sea’s receding shorelines. While the current budget was an improvement from the previous one, the Governor took out $3 million for an important state grant program used to fund local habitat projects around the Salton Sea. This presents an unfortunate pitfall because, without this money, local organizations that have previously been dedicated to Salton Sea restoration may not have the funds to continue getting restoration projects moving on the ground.
Renewable Energy Potential
Habitat restoration has been only part of the discussion regarding the future of the Salton Sea. Many believe that a viable future for the Sea is linked to renewable energy development. If proper landscape-level planning is initiated to identify the most suitable sites, the area offers ample opportunities for wildlife-friendly renewable energy projects. Imperial County is home to California’s largest geothermal hotspot with an estimated potential of 2,200 megawatts. Geothermal energy production leaves a smaller footprint on the landscape and provides a constant source of energy to the grid. Solar energy resources are also high in the region and, if sited on the Salton Sea’s exposed playas, could offer a potential win-win situation by providing clean energy while cutting down on dust emissions from the uncovered sands. In addition, the Salton Sea has been the testing grounds for other alternative energy sources such as algae production and biofuels.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a joint state-federal habitat conservation plan/natural communities conservation plan for renewable energy development in the desert, encompasses a large portion of the Salton Sea and all of Imperial Valley in its planning area. The DRECP aims to identify the most appropriate places for solar, wind and geothermal development while simultaneously providing for conservation of the species affected by this development. Many are hopeful that through public-private partnerships among alternative energy developers, the state and local jurisdictions, the Salton Sea’s bleak future could brighten. Imperial County is currently working with the California Energy Commission to plan for renewable energy and transmission development within the County, including identification of the most appropriate places for siting solar development on the exposed playa of the receding Salton Sea.
Defenders of Wildlife has been actively involved in the efforts to save the Salton Sea since 2001, and has worked to facilitate lower-impact renewable energy projects in California. Since 2009, Defenders has acted through the DRECP to work with developers to minimize impacts to wildlife and habitat, shape policy, complete scientific analyses, offer expert testimony on renewable energy and publish findings and recommendations like our “Smart from the start” report.
In late June, Kim Delfino and I had the chance to tour a geothermal plant at the Salton Sea and an algae research facility, and meet with local government officials in Imperial Valley to discuss the importance of the DRECP to the Salton Sea. In addition, Kim Delfino testified at a California Senate Select Committee hearing on the opportunities for renewable energy development at the Salton Sea and how this could aid in the habitat restoration projects at the lake. Renewable energy development, possibly through the DRECP, would include provisions for mitigation money that could then be directed toward funding these habitat projects. Over the next year, Defenders will be working hard to ensure that wildlife-friendly renewable energy can be sited at the Salton Sea and help mitigate some of the impacts the loss of water will have on the birds and fish that utilize this unique ecosystem.