Salton Sea and the New Normal

Last month, Salton Sea Sense had the opportunity to host and hear from Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate at the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute aims to provide science-based leadership and outreach to inform public water policy, and Cohen has been working specifically on the Salton Sea since 1998. He recently published an excellent Institute blog post on the current “fortunes and prospects” at the Sea, which is available here.

In his talk at UC Riverside, Cohen outlined some of the challenges that continue to face the Salton Sea. One of those challenges is the perception of Sea as an “artificial” ecosystem, which we have previously blogged about. Cohen pointed out that the whole of the State of California’s water is part of a managed system that includes man-made aqueducts, reservoirs and pumps. The Salton Sea is an essential part of this system as one of the last remaining aquatic habitat options in the southwestern United States for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

California’s constructed water system that delivers water throughout the state that includes the State Water Project (blue), the Central Valley Project (red), as well as other federal, state, and private infrastructure projects.

California’s constructed water system that delivers water throughout the State that includes the State Water Project (blue), the Central Valley Project (red), as well as other federal, state, and private infrastructure projects.

Another challenge is the imbalanced Colorado River water system, in which more water is allocated than is readily available. As the drought proliferates and California policymakers look to address water scarcity, we look to the largest consumer: Imperial Irrigation District, which is entitled to 3.1 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually. These reallocations of water can be great for cities like San Diego that are looking to create more sustainable and diverse water supplies, but not so great for the fate of the Salton Sea and its human and avian residents.

Colorado River allocation by state, in acre-feet. Allocations were divded based on existing demands in 1922, as well as project growth at the time. Source: Glen Canyon Dam Wiki

Finally, there is the challenge of inequity at the Sea. The local residents will ultimately bear the cost of inaction in the coming months, while the costs of taking action are borne by the State of California. The State has accepted its responsibility to protect the Salton Sea; however, there remains a desperate need for timely, holistic, cost-effective action that has not been met. The State’s Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP) has set admirable goals for habitat and dust suppression. Now, it is a matter of matching these goals with significant action and necessary funding.

As Cohen put it, the Salton Sea has the potential to be a valuable, sustainable resource over the long-term, though one that will look very different from its current incarnation. Despite the imminent loss of mitigation water and the loss of as much as 40% of the Sea’s historic long-term inflows, there will still be a significant amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea (700,000 acre-feet per year!). Plus, there just isn’t time for years of planning and infrastructure construction to identify and bring in new water sources.  Success at the Salton Sea requires dedicated resources and effective project management, today. The State has the opportunity to prioritize well-constructed habitat and air quality management projects that are a relatively easy solution in the short-term, and have massive public health and ecological value in the long-term.

13 thoughts on “Salton Sea and the New Normal”

  1. Mike hasn’t changed his ideas in a decade–shrink the lake; forget about new water; focus on expedient mitigation.
    Many of his ideas have been brought forward by Dr. Brownlee in the Salton Sea Authority’s perimeter lake proposal.

    I believe the State is going to have to do way more for several reasons:

    First is the perimeter lake’s inability to stop airborne pollutant pulmonary damage to the children of the Imperial Valley. After all, the first stated goal of the California Natural Resources Salton Sea webpage is “…preserving clean air.”

    Another reason is the relative cost. The perimeter lake costs 1.6 billion dollars. Jennings’ Sea to Sea plan costs 800 million.

    Third is lake elevation control. Jennings’ plan keeps the lake covered at -227.5 (no dust). The Salton Sea Authority’s plan leaves 100,000+ acres uncovered (100 square miles) at build-out.

    Fourth, Jennings’ plan also restores 100,000 additional acres at Laguna Salada–new habitat for the Pacific Flyway–plus the entire Salton Sea area. This is such a great environmental twofer, we just have to do it.

    Fifth, Jennings’ plan dilutes the dirty tile water at the south end, and also the sewer water from Indio and Coachella from the Whitewater storm drain in the north. The perimeter lake just continues to let it pollute at current levels.

    I could go on, but the long and the short of it is, we need habitat, but we need to protect public health just as much. The 80 million in habitat needs to be followed next by the Sea to Sea canal.


    1. Hi Chris,

      I absolutely agree that public health must be considered alongside ecosystem restoration, if not made a priority. Based our conversations with Cohen, I’d say he feels the same, and (as I mentioned in this post) believes that efficient use of the future water allocated the Sea can address both of these issues. Both the perimeter lake and the water import proposals have their fair share of short-comings, but in the time that we have (I mean within the next year or so) we need the State to prioritize management projects that will give us the most bang for our bureaucratic-buck and effectively make use of the inflows that are guaranteed, for now.


  2. Dr. Brownlee foresees it taking 8 years for permits and EIRs before building can begin on the perimeter lake. Mr. Jennings thinks his project can do the same in two.

    No matter who is right, neither is going to solve the problem as quickly as we hope.

    The short term solution is to enjoin water transfers until the State honors its statutory commitments to restore the sea. This means revising and extending the 15 year water order to deliver restorative water to the Salton Sea until solutions have had a chance to work (a la Mono Lake). And, it means capping water shipments outside the region until restoration rectifies the problem.


  3. Chris,
    Thanks for the thought-out response.
    We’ve had this discussion on the merit and feasibility of Sea to Sea plans, and the reasons why they have not garnered traction with the State are many and detailed elsewhere. It is simply not sustainable to look outwards for additional water to save the region. Figuring out the best way to work with what we have is the most appropriate response, in my opinion, and Michael Cohen along with the SSMP seeks to do that.
    We all agree on the necessity of preserving public health and habitat. Any action we can take sooner than later should be prioritized. The shallow habitat projects currently under design and construction are our best shot at preserving public health and any semblance of the current ecosystem.


  4. Not sustainable? To import water is not sustainable? Why?

    The SSWIFT Salton Sea Authority plan is unsustainable. When health (in children and old people, Drew) declines due to pm 2.5 and pm 10 dust as more and more playa is exposed, the State will get sued by the EPA, an injunction will be placed, and the plan will implode, a la Owens Lake, with big bucks being shelled out to those who’ve suffered.


    1. The State seems to be aware of their liability for human health.
      Purchasing water from landowners in another country and leasing their land for conveyance is not sustainable. Depending on water that isn’t ours to keep the playa wet is not sustainable. The State would be at the mercy of a businessman and a foreign tribe. Most of Southern California is in violation of that premise; we import water from all over because there is not enough here. That is not sustainable.
      Modifying the QSA is out of reach for the SSMP; Bruce Wilcox has no say in it, his committees have no say in it. Bruce is working within the limits of his position, and doing a commendable job. Your fight is best fought by IID and SDCWA


      1. Just to add my two cents, I agree that neither seawater import plans nor the SSWIFT plan seem sustainable in terms of their politics, engineering, or utilization of resources.
        However, the State’s broader SSMP approach to incremental mitigation and restoration efforts, relying on the water that will realistically be available, fits with the true definition of sustainability.


  5. Hi Drew, I am interested in the reasons the Sea to Sea plans have not garned traction with the State. Are you able to provide a link to the info? Thank you


    1. Cost, time, and binational agreement are the main obstacles I’ve heard cited many times, Jasmyn.
      The Pacific Institute put out a great one-pager summarizing the feasibility of Sea to Sea plans, found here: (make sure to click the photo in the top right corner, too)
      If the downhill-only, low-cost, quick-fix solutions would save the Sea, the State would act on them. The State knows it is liable for the health ramifications associated with the playa becoming exposed. That’s why Sea to Sea proponents get their day in court with the Long Range Planning Committee.
      I know we all want a silver bullet solution, and digging a ditch sounds intuitive enough, but there is a reason some people sell their Kool-Aid so aggressively, and that is simply to turn a profit.


    2. Hi Jasmyn! Drew’s comment sums up the main points well, but to this day the Long Range Planning Committee continues to consider sea-to-sea proposals seriously and assess the merits for all proposals equally.
      The nature of bureaucracy is that timing is slow and funding is hard to come by, which is the reason long range plans (including Sea to Sea) must remain on a back burner while immediate action can be prioritized to suppress dust and preserve habitat in the coming months and year.


  6. Drew:
    1) Cost: sea to sea is 850 million. SSWIFT is 1.6 billion.
    2) Time: Mr. Jennings estimates a total of 5 years to build. Dr. Brownlee estimates 8 years for SSWIFT.
    3)Binational Agreements: The U.S. And Mexico already have many long standing cooperative agreements. A few include international migratory bird treaties; the U.S. holding water for Mexico in Lake Mead; guaranted delivery amounts from the Colorado; and many others. Lots have been in effect for better than 80 years, and are being honored scrupulously by both sides. Mexico is an esteemed, cooperative neighbor.
    4) Private entrepreneurs have successfully built many large infrastructure projects in the U.S. One such project is Hoover Dam, which was built by Kaiser and Bechtel, which supplies all the water to Imperial while controlling prior flooding which made agriculture, in an word, unsustainable in that valley.
    5). Fearing the Cucupah Tribe is, frankly, a position I find distasteful. They are currently in strained financial conditions and stand to gain financially and territorially when the Laguna Salada is flooded and 100,000 acres of currently dedicated playa bloom with flora and fauna.


    1. Chris:
      1) Mr. Jennings always fails to mention to his supporters the fact that the Cucapah will determine a price per acre for leasing their land and a price per acre foot of water delivered that the State would be beholden to pay.
      Of course “digging a ditch” is cheap, but neither $1B or $2B is available right now, so the State is progressing the SSMP with the funding it has, and fighting for more along the way. Mr. Jennings wants his money up front, and that is not reality in this situation.
      2) It seems you’re really hung up on SSWIFT when neither I, Holly, nor Mr. Cohen advocate for SSWIFT in this blog post. Again, the SSMP is moving forward with projects that will put water on the ground immediately, not 5 years from now, and not 8 years from now.
      3) I am not implying Mexico is not a cooperative neighbor. I am implying that the logistical hurdles one must clear in order to produce a successful agreement like the ones you mentioned takes time, and therefore is inherently an obstacle to water import plans.
      4) Not sure what the point is here. Yes, private contractors build things for the government. Yes, dams control flooding and make it easier to live in a floodplain. That doesn’t change that bringing water from the ocean to a low point in the desert is unsustainable.
      5) No one is fearing the Cucapah nor is anyone saying they shouldn’t benefit from use of their land. You can imagine how easy it was for Johnson & Jennings to convince them that selling water and leasing land to CA would make them rich. Of course the Cucapah would be on board. Why wouldn’t they want their dry lake filled and get paid to do so? But that makes California and the Salton Sea beholden to a foreign interest, which is inherently less ideal than making do with the water the Sea already has and will continue to have available as the mitigation water dwindles. That’s the entire point of this message: Learn to make do with what we’ve got, and that’s what Bruce and the SSMP are trying to do.

      Liked by 1 person

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