From The Desert Sun (Ian James):
California’s top water regulators adopted an agreement that commits the state to following through on plans of building wetlands and controlling dust around the shrinking Salton Sea over the next 10 years.
The order approved Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board sets targets for state agencies in building thousands of acres of ponds, wetlands and other dust-control projects around the lake.
The agreement is based on California’s 10-year plan for the lake, which Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration released in March. So far, most of the funding hasn’t been secured for the $383 million plan.
California’s largest lake is about to start shrinking more rapidly at the end of this year under a water transfer deal, leaving vast stretches of dusty lakebed exposed near communities that already suffer from extremely high asthma rates. The Salton Sea is also growing progressively saltier, threatening to kill off remaining fish and drive away birds that have relied on the lake as a migratory haven for more than a century.
The agreement represents a consensus among local and state agencies after years of delays, and formalizes state officials’ commitments over the coming decade…
Officials from several agencies and water districts told the board at the meeting in Los Angeles that the agreement is a key step toward preparing for a “smaller but sustainable” Salton Sea.
Under the order, state agencies are to build a total of 29,800 acres of dust-control projects and habitat areas around the lake by the end of 2028. The State Water Board, which is taking on an oversight role, set a timetable of increasing annual targets for building those projects, starting at 500 acres in 2018 and increasing to 4,200 acres in 2028.
State agencies will have to report on their progress each year, and if they fail to meet an annual acreage target by more than 20 percent, they’ll be required to present a plan to “cure the deficiency” within 12 months.
The agreement requires that at least half of the total acreage must “provide habitat benefits for fish and wildlife.” The remaining areas could include dust-control projects that don’t require water, such as plowing sections of lakebed or laying down bales of hay to block windblown dust…
The agreement was reached during negotiations involving state officials, the Imperial Irrigation District, Imperial County and the San Diego County Water Authority…
Board member Tam Doduc asked a few of those who spoke how they define a “smaller but sustainable” Salton Sea.
Kelley said it’s “a lake that won’t make people sick.” Others added that it’s also critical to protect the important bird habitats that the lake provide along the the Pacific Flyway…
The lake has been sustained for more than a century by water running off farmland in the Imperial Valley. But the amount of water flowing into the lake is decreasing, and more than 18,000 acres of dry lakebed have been left exposed as the shorelines have retreated over the past two decades. The lake, which has no outlet and is already saltier than the ocean, regularly gives off odors resembling rotten eggs.
The sea’s decline reflects the growing strains on the Colorado River. Under a water transfer deal signed in 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District is selling increasing quantities of water to cities in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.
The agreement called for the Imperial district to send “mitigation water” from its canals into the sea through 2017. At the end of this year, that flow of water will be cut off and the lake will recede more rapidly.
Over the next 30 years, the lake is projected to shrink by a third.
State officials touted the new consensus as a landmark agreement that defines California’s commitment to restoring and managing the Salton Sea…
Many communities around the Salton Sea are predominantly Latino and among the poorest in California.
Imperial County already has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California, and the problem is expected to get worse as tens of thousands of acres of lakebed are left high and dry around the lake over the next decade.
If the ponds and wetlands are fully built as planned, they would cover up less than half of the more than 60,000 acres of dry lakebed that are projected to be left exposed over the next 10 years…
Funding for the state’s plan also remains uncertain. So far, $80.5 million has been approved. California voters will have the opportunity to approve $200 million more for Salton Sea projects as part of a $4 billion bond measure on the ballot in June.
Malissa Hathaway McKeith, a Riverside lawyer who leads the nonprofit Citizens United for Resources and the Environment, urged the board ahead of the meeting to put the ramp-up of the water transfer on hold until there is an “actual Restoration Plan.”
McKeith said in a letter that adopting an agreement that treats the state’s 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan as a restoration plan “is a disservice particularly to the communities” around the lake. She said the board should hold more hearings to address “the core issues of what inflows will be needed to sustain this undefined ‘smaller Salton Sea.’”
The agreement includes requirements for state agencies under the next governor who takes when Brown steps down after the 2018 election. Among other things, the Natural Resources Agency is required to complete a long-term by the end of 2022.
With the agreement finalized, Wilcox said his agency is focused on getting projects going on portion of the exposed lakebed…
The agreement on the Salton Sea also could help ease the way toward a larger Colorado River deal between California, Arizona and Nevada. Representatives of the three states have been negotiating a proposed Drought Contingency Plan, which would involve drawing less water from Lake Mead to avert severe shortages.
The Imperial Irrigation District holds the biggest single water entitlement along the Colorado River and supplies water to lucrative farms producing crops from hay to Brussels sprouts. During the past year, the district had warned the state that without a credible plan for the Salton Sea, it wouldn’t take part in the proposed Colorado River deal. That condition now appears to have been met.