Let’s be SSWIFT about it

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The Salton Sea Water Incremental Funding in Time (SSWIFT) proposal is another reason to be optimistic about restoration at the Sea. [1] SSWIFT, which is backed by County of Riverside District Supervisor John Benoit and the Salton Sea Authority (SSA), could be a simple solution for mitigating fugitive dust while other projects that focus on wildlife preservation and energy development are established around the Sea.

The SSWIFT plan is similar to the 2007 California Resources Agency restoration plan based on building concentric lakes of varying salinity. The general plan is to build levees to separate the high salinity center of the lake from a lower salinity outer lake. This outer lake would receive 140 thousand acre-feet per year (KAFY) of freshwater from the New River and Whitewater River to support bird and fish populations and the inner brine sink would keep the lakebed wet to prevent fugitive dust. Earthen levee embankments will be built from sediment dredged from the Salton Sea, which also will deepen the lake and allow access to existing marinas. This plan will not interfere with other proposals at the sea, such as the SSRREI proposal and the Species Conservation Habitat. [2] [3]


Draft SSWIFT lake: Dark blue regions indicate the outer, low salinity lake and the light blue region indicates the inner, high salinity lake.

Approximately 65 miles of levees at $10 million/mi will be built to construct these concentric lakes. The dimensions of the Sea will change from 367 square miles to 36 square miles, 26 sq mi in Imperial County and 10 sq mi in Riverside County, and the surface elevation will remain at -235 ft for the outer lake but drop to -269 ft for the inner lake with the levees built at -245 ft. The 140 KAFY is sufficient to maintain the elevation of the outer lake such that the SSRREI and the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) can use any additional water.

Although it seems risky to dredge Salton Sea sediment contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides for use in levees, there are some potential advantages to the SSWIFT plan. This plan could provide cleaner, lower salinity water to support fish and bird species, and maintain water over the emissive playa. The engineering and economic feasibility of this plan is comparable to that of the SCH, but inherent challenges do still exist in implementing both. Even so, short term restoration plans like these are the most viable options for effectively addressing the increasingly pressing risks posed by the drying Sea. 

With the looming 2017 QSA deadline, there is a renewed sense of urgency for restoration projects at the Salton Sea. In the last five months two restoration plans have been proposed and one project broke ground. The Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative (SSRREI) was proposed in July by the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County, the SSWIFT concept was proposed in September by the SSA, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service Red Hill Bay species conservation habitat broke ground in November. The SSA plans to use the SSRREI and SSWIFT plans as the basis for a new Salton Sea Preferred Plan to propose to the Natural Resources Agency upon the passing of legislature AB 1095, which will require a completed project and cost analysis of shovel-ready Salton Sea projects by March 31, 2016. [1] In the past, inaction was largely a result of too many stakeholders and none that were willing to bear the full financial burden, but this time around the attitude is different; these three agencies are working together to save the Sea, and as swiftly as possible.

Written by Melissa Morgan

This article has been edited to better maintain the SaltonSeaSense authors’ efforts to remain unbiased in our publications as of 11:10am on December 11, 2015, and to reflect John Benoit’s correct current position of District Supervisor for Riverside County as of 8:00am on January 17, 2016.


[1] Salton Sea Authority. (2015, September 24) Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors Meeting Minutes. El Centro, CA.

[2] SSWIFT Concept Restoration for the Salton Sea; Salton Sea Authority, September 2015.

[3] Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative; Imperial Irrigation District, July 2015.



18 thoughts on “Let’s be SSWIFT about it”

  1. The idea of a brine sink means sacrificing to public trust values at the sea.

    Instead, a no frills, input-only canal from the Sea of Cortez to an impoundment pond at Laguna Salada. An 8’ siphon for the 10 miles over the 125’ rise east of Mt. Signal to Greeson Wash. Turbines on the Salton Sea end of the siphon to make power from the five hundred thousand acre feet per year needed to cover the playa and control the lake’s elevation, which will provide $75,000,00 per year in green revenue (690 cubic feet per second with a 125′ head) to pay for the bonds needed to build the project. Geotubes around the perimeter to create 25,000 acres of habitat for the Pacific flyway from the remaining tile water.

    A new, blended alternative that keeps the Salton Sea at its current level, is cost effective, aesthetically attractive, and which protects the public trust values at the sea.


    1. Hi Chris, we were hoping you would respond in our discussion on the public trust issue that we began about a month ago. If you have time, give that another look and let us know what you think.

      Let us preface by saying our mission here at Salton Sea Sense is to be an impartial, scientifically rigorous resource for the community. We want to present the facts, be objective, empower our readers, and leave no stone unturned.

      In regards to the SSWIFT plan, the main goal is to keep water on the playa, as that is the largest public health concern. And the authors of the SSWIFT plan, the Salton Sea Authority, appear to be taking a more realistic “better safe than sorry” approach in regards to the amount of water the Salton Sea will have to work with in the future. Your proposition, like many others that want to connect the Salton Sea to the Gulf of California is ambitious, sounds intuitive at first glance, and would be recognized as an impressive engineering feat if 50 years from now we looked back and saw that it worked. And the SSA has in place a forum for technical review of proposed restoration options and other technological proposals that affect the Sea. We encourage you to attend that with your plan and go through the vetting process to be considered as a long term option. But, when the water transfer to San Diego occurs (the legality of which is a separate issue you’ve already raised), the Salton Sea will head into a steep decline in terms of volume and ecological health. There is simply not enough time to plan, permit, and construct Sea to Sea options before that happens. Even if you were able to raise the funds through bonds, even if you had the technical review approval from the State and Salton Sea Authority, even if Mexico was on board and ready to act, simply building it will take too long to save the Sea in the short term.

      We must take quick action now on short term projects that slow down the rate of decline at the Sea until mid-range and long-term solutions can be implemented. We need a balance of all three. That is one aspect of the SSRREI plan that is so appealing to many people. It puts emphasis on the short term options that keep water on the playa and try to stabilize the salinity of the ecosystems, while allowing for the longer term options to develop in the meantime.

      Thank you for caring about the Salton Sea. We hope you will continue to engage with us here.


  2. O.K. I will.

    Also, don’t miss the forest for the trees. The State is in de facto breach of contract. They are covering their tracks with a recent flurry of paper, and some postage stamp projects, but until they fulfill their obligation on the ground to restore the sea, the legal situation weighs against them. Imperial Irrigation and Imperial County are right to call them it.


    1. Hi Chris,

      The fact that the State of California is breaching its contract in terms of its responsibilities at the Salton Sea requires that we define exactly what they agreed to in the first place. As far as we can tell, the agreement in question comes from the legislation surrounding the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA). In those documents, the State is responsible for restoration projects that will mitigate the environmental costs associated with the drying Salton Sea in 2017. However, the term “restoration” is not clearly defined in any of the QSA documents– Would you suggest restoration to its original state? Then what should be considered the original state? A dry lakebed of 1904, or a temporarily thriving tourist destination in the 1960s, or a hypersaline lake that supports wildlife in 2000? This is something we, at Salton Sea Sense, have considered and have not found a clear answer to, but we are happy to discuss if you have further information.

      Thanks again for your interest in the Sea’s future,
      Holly Mayton


  3. “In regards to” The New River, expect that soon it will contain only a little water because of the proliferation of “Drip-Irrigation”. Also, I’m told that the MWD has a lien on that river and has in mind saving that water for consumption in Travertine Development.


    1. Hi John,

      The New River represents just one small piece of the total inflows from agricultural runoff to the Salton Sea, which currently make up 85% of the total water entering the Sea each year. However, we also know that the American southwest is currently experiencing a record drought, and that agriculture is by far the top consumer of end-use water in this region. Our blog has written quite extensively on the various agricultural challenges and opportunities in the Salton Sea region (check them out here). In brief, drip irrigation has gained a lot of support for its ability to increase efficiency of water and fertilizer use in fields. This enables more water to be diverted to support growing urban populations, and less chemical fertilizer pollutants to build up in our waterways. However, it’s true that this doesn’t spell good news for the Salton Sea’s shoreline, and is a big reason why restorative action is necessary. This situation is not unique to the New River.

      Obviously we’ve noticed you care a lot about the Salton Sea, John. Can you tell us what your connection to the Sea is? Do you live in the area? Have family here? What are your main sources of information regarding all things Salton Sea? We are interested to know how people who are currently engaged with the Salton Sea’s issues are connected and how they learn what is developing there.

      Holly Mayton & Drew Story


  4. This is a nice presentation from the Salton Sea Sense group discussing yet another compromise, which kicks the can down the road.
    Let us be clear first, before we swiftly jump into another half-baked solution.
    The SSA was created on June 2, 1993 by the state of California for the purpose of ensuring the beneficial uses of the Salton Sea.
    To dismiss there ability to execute their supreme authority over the sea as ” largely a result of too many stakeholders and none that were willing to bear the full financial burden, but this time around the attitude is different” is a tired excuse.
    To further state “these three agencies are working together to save the Sea, and as swiftly as possible.” seems to neglect the 22 years of inaction. The historical facts show past inaction was and is attributed to the lack of stakeholder representation in plans, the unrealistic plans that are estimated to cost billions of taxpayer dollars and so much more.
    “The Salton Sea Water Incremental Funding in Time (SSWIFT) proposal is another reason to be optimistic about restoration at the Sea”
    I fail to see the optimism, this 11th hour draft plan is a further erosion of the public trust, their common sense, and a further detriment to the sea, land and tax values for the imperial county. The facts are it “will” create more pollution for the millions in the local fallout area and continue to add to the global pollution. It will create more issues than it solves and it is not a simple solution. The SSA lack of confidence in its own description of its “simple solution” for mitigating fugitive dust will cost taxpayers billions, while kicking the can down the road.
    ” Although it seems risky to dredge Salton Sea sediment contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides for use in levees,”
    seems risky is what I would use when trying a new drink or eating a new food group, I would not use it to describe a fact.
    It does not seem risky to dredge and stir up the bottom it is dangerous due to the content, location and intended use, this is the fundamental reason the region wants to keep the water and restore the playa.
    The response to Chris Cockroft comment was equally misleading and further implied that we as a community should further vet ideas through a process that has shown little to no progress for 22 years, all the while the sea is dying in front of our eyes.
    Needless to say the poison pill found in AB 1095 makes the process suggest to Chris Cockroft better solution, a non starter / further impossibility to achieve in the timeframe given.
    “(b) For purposes of this section, “shovel-ready” means those projects that are in either the final planning, environmental review, or permitting phase.” [1]
    Just so the Salton Sea Sense and its readers are quite clear and I note and admire your noble statement
    “We want to present the facts, be objective, empower our readers, and leave no stone unturned.”
    Wanting to be the singular authority on the sea issue would demand you have a multidisciplinary science approach, an open mind, provide objective counsel, and not regurgitate the rhetoric about the impossibility to save our sea.
    The reduction in the sea is not an acceptable compromise that the community can sustain, neither is the bleak outlook for water options for the sea, both are not realistic problems but fabricated to service another agenda.
    There is abundant options for water including a sea to sea solution that will be a thousand times better than any of the drafts currently on the table. Here are just a few examples that could be but so far have never been considered by the current authority, that you may want to share with your audience. I will omit the sea to sea solution since that has been well described. The first one is “shovel ready” so to speak since it does not require them and could be implemented yesterday.
    Stakeholder Plan A .SOS
    Address the “law of the river” .
    The state and county should make an importation request of up to an additional 500,000aft from the river, which will be designated for the Salton Sea. “No shovels required just a review of the public trust doctrines that the law is entrusted to maintain and uphold.
    The next phase in a stakeholder plan is to accrue uncontested water and apply that to a playa restoration while using our multidisciplinary science approach to clean and reduce the salt content in the current sea, these can be achieved through the expansion of existing grants or create a new grant funded by corporations violating public trust.


    1. Hello Alex,
      I appreciate the time and effort you put into transcribing your thoughts on this issue.
      But I must admit, I expected more cordial and mature arguments from the Board President of EcoMedia Compass.

      We are very familiar with the purpose of the Salton Sea Authority (SSA) but will vehemently disagree that they have “supreme authority” over the Salton Sea. Rarely does a single government agency ever have “supreme authority” over anything, and the Salton Sea is no different. A multitude of state and federal agencies have a stake in the Salton Sea; the SSA’s mission, as you pointed out, is to work with this myriad of agencies and stakeholders to ensure beneficial uses of the Sea. The primary “beneficial use” of the Sea is as an agricultural sump, and it is also used to protect endangered species (fish and birds). To think that the SSA can snap its fingers and command money and action from whomever it pleases, yet simply refuses to, is a misinformed and indolent attempt to pass the buck.

      We are also well aware of the decades of “kicking the can” at the Sea. Our mentioning that there seems to be more collaborative effort currently says absolutely nothing about the past. You yourself wrote on Facebook not too long ago, “finally we are getting some movement,” when you posted the video from the Desert Sun, and your Executive Director, Kerry Morrison wrote, “The Salton Sea has become the hottest thing since sliced bread.” So I think we share a common sentiment when we say that at last these agencies seem to be working together to save the Sea, and as swiftly as possible.

      You are more than entitled to not think the SSWIFT plan is a good idea or a reason to be optimistic. What Melissa explained in this post was “short term restoration plans like these are the most viable options for effectively addressing the increasingly pressing risks posed by the drying Sea.” That the SSWIFT plan can address some of the issues at the Sea without importing water, and the fact that the SSA is actively moving on the plan’s vetting and implementation are our reasons to be optimistic. What truly causes loss of public trust is when one sensationalizes costs and impending doom, something that appears in your argument. The SSWIFT plan is estimated to cost just shy of $1B, one third of the SSRREI proposal, less 10% of the 2006 state approved plan, and a rounding error compared to the legitimate costs of Sea to Sea proposals.

      As we told Chris, there is a time and place for people to submit technical proposals. Your Board Vice President, Tom Sephton, is familiar with the process, and we are sure he and others with their own ideas for saving the Sea will take advantage of the opportunity. We at Salton Sea Sense cannot offer that to the community, a vetting service, but we try to inform people of the proper channels for taking action at the Sea. You are correct to point out the Sea is drying in front of our eyes, and that is why we don’t understand why your group is hellbent on a decades-long endeavor instead of equally supporting critical, immediate action. Yes, the Natural Resources Agency must report shovel-ready projects to the Legislature by the end of March 2016. But it should be obvious that while those short term plans commence, the need for mid-term and long-term proposals will also be apparent. We believe that is why the SSA even bothers to listen to proposals that won’t affect the Sea’s problems for many years, such as the Sea to Sea plans.

      We at Salton Sea Sense are not hubristic enough to think that we can be a “singular authority” on the Salton Sea. But I do challenge you to locate a resource that is more multidisciplinary than ours, maintains scientific integrity, and empowers those who care about the Sea to have a true impact. We are not lawyers or financial advisers, and as such, will not give counsel. We give information. We never regurgitate anything that implies the Sea is an impossible challenge. In regards to having an open mind, your team’s all-or-nothing adoption of Sea to Sea plans conveys to us that you are not willing to lend support to anything that produces less than the glorious recreational Salton Sea of the 1950’s, and failing to do so is the essence of narrow-mindedness.

      One of our authors, Miguel Garcia, wrote multiple pieces about water rights in the west. I would encourage you to read them here and here, and to learn more about the appropriation of water from the Colorado River. Requesting 500kAFY is not only woefully ignorant of California’s overdrafting of Colorado River water, it is tone-deaf to the state of emergency we exist in due to our drought. You are asking for more than 10% of California’s 4.4MAFY allotment from the Colorado River to be diverted to the Salton Sea and left to evaporate. That simply will never happen. The public trust argument is a tricky one, but that the Sea is now only effectively supported by the man-made All American Canal (and not a navigable Colorado River), the State can fulfill its obligations to maintain beneficial use of this State-defined “public water reserve” by maintaining the ability for agricultural runoff to flow to it, and protecting the ecosystem, something the recent restoration projects, i.e. Red Hill Bay, aim to do.

      I challenge you to find a sizable uncontested fresh water source anywhere on this planet. Yes, technologies exist to desalt water, but wishing for someone to, again, snap their fingers and produce funds for implementing these expensive technologies is ignorant at best, and can only result in further frustration by all parties, distraction from more viable options, and ultimately lack of action.

      We must be realistic, optimistic, and willing to sacrifice some of our personal desires to achieve progress together. We hope you and your team will get on board.

      Drew Story


  5. Both of the current proposed plans, do some great things for the Salton Sea. They could even be implemented together. They create some recreational areas, habitat and cover some dust. One of the main issues though is still, many tens of thousands of acres being exposed to desert winds. Without covering the playa, this is not acceptable as a final solution. There should be one more step. Importing water could actually be a great addition to the SSRREI and SSWIFT plans, even if it doesn’t get here by next year. Once those planned actions are under way, a third step, ocean water import from the willing landowners in Mexico would cover the remaining playa and bring the center of the sea back to levels that resemble a full Salton Sea. More clean ocean water in the region gives tremendous potential for wetlands, saltwater farming and other water resource creation.
    Adding this step covers all of the bases. Long term issues solved for our future generations!


    1. Hi Kerry,
      We agree that covering the playa must remain a paramount goal for any restoration plan.
      We believe the SSRREI addresses this need quite extensively. The SSWIFT plan is not without its flaws, but we felt it was important to give our readers the information about this Salton Sea Authority – devised plan. The fact that it is a short-term plan, with immediate steps towards stabilizing the Salton Sea, gives it substantially more merit than plans that will not affect the Sea for many years. There is simply not enough time to avoid the hyper salinization of the Sea and the loss of the ecosystems with those long term endeavors like the Sea to Sea options. (You can read more about that in the response to Alex.) Having long term goals is also important, but letting them detract from the attention necessary to implement rapid improvements is counter-productive.

      Drew Story


  6. Hi Holly,
    This question has a long history. It’s naïve to try to answer it in a blog.
    The short version is: after Congressional hearings in the 90’s (think George Brown and Sunny Bono), the Bureau of Reclamation was instructed to look at Salton Sea alternatives to evaluate restoration to the healthy, vibrant, people friendly place it was in the ‘50’s.

    In 1997 they issued “Salton Sea Alternative Evaluation Final Draft Report.” The report tried to look all possible alternatives for restoration based on three criteria: 1) Achieving and maintaining target salinity of 40 ppt., 2) achieving a maintaining a target water surface elevation of 1232 m.s.l., and, 3) Use proven technology and not involve research.

    The law and administrative planning since that time has used these criteria.


    Chris Cockroft


    1. Hi Chris,

      I’ll reiterate what we have said before, which is that by no means do we consider ourselves an authority on the Salton Sea, but rather our goal is to pursue an understanding of the complex issues and parse them down into ~500 word blog posts for our readers, who range from experts on the Sea to those who have never heard of it before. To that end, we appreciate your comments and the opportunity to learn from your knowledge and perspective on the Salton Sea, and hope that you will give us the same courtesy as we strive to presents the facts and available resources in our blog posts. Collaboration and open-mindedness by all involved parties are key to making these conversations productive, and to ensuring a bright future for the Salton Sea.

      That said, we hope to continue looking into the criteria used by the legislature to define Salton Sea “restoration” and “mitigation” initiatives, and look forward to future discussion. If you ever have any resources to share on the subject of the Salton Sea, we’d love to see them.

      Holly Mayton


  7. I note that your map is from Michael Cohen at the Pacific Institute. Please note that Michael’s plan is for a two way canal south of the biosphere zone. It is not at all the same as an input-only, gravity fed canal to Laguna Salada with a siphon to Greeson Wash in Imperial County, and with turbines on the U.S. side to create hydropower.

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t grok the commentator’s idea!


  8. I think your subjectivity is showing.

    The SSWIFT plan is unimaginative expediency at its worst. The Coachella and Imperial Valleys deserve better. A salt flat instead of a lake? Fugitive dust from poorly planned playa? This after the SSA voted to support IID’s requirement that the State live up to its commitment to restore the sea last winter? This idea is a betrayal of the will of the voting majority. Please remember that Imperial Irrigation holds senior water rights, not the SSA.


  9. Gravity conveyance of water from the Sea of Cortez to the Salton Sea. No lifting or pumping of sea water is needed. Water will produce 18 MW/hour of Hydro power as the water falls into Salton Sea. This would be a permanent solution to dust and shrinking Salton Sea. Cost is not 7 billion or even 3 billion, but more like 1/2 a billion and would supply money for other restoration projects and power for desalination of Salton Sea.

    Lets support real permanent fixes not dressing up a dying lake look better as it dies.


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