Shrinking Shorelines Symposium

Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea:

Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions

On Friday May 11, 2018, the University of California, Riverside – Palm Desert Center along with the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside hosted a symposium, Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea: Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions. This invitation-only event was attended by nearly 100 people and brought together many policymakers, research scientists, community leaders, students, and other Salton Sea experts for the first time. With a shared goal of supporting action to protect the environment and public health at the Sea, panel discussions and presentation topics ranged from air quality science to environmental justice.

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CA Salton Sea Management Program: 10-Year Plan

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The California Natural Resources Agency published its Phase 1 plan for the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) in March 2017, which details the technical and economic justification and implementation of a series of projects until 2028. Notable characteristics of the plan include:

  • Creation of a “smaller and sustainable” Salton Sea
  • Focus on expediting habitat creation and dust suppression for most immediate areas of risk
  • Adaptive management strategy, meaning that projects are planned incrementally over the next 10 years and processes for adding future projects is outlined specifically
  • Total project costs are projected to be $303 million through 2028, but the source of these funds is not yet clear

Restorative action at the Salton Sea has been minimal for more than a decade, which the State attributes to a lack of shared vision and necessary funds—until recently. That summer, it was announced that a $200 million allocation by the State of California has been secured to begin work on the SSMP, a small piece of a $4 billion measure for statewide parks and water projects (Proposition 68) that will go before voters this June. In the meantime, CA Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia spearheaded a bill that secured $280 million for the SSMP just last month.

The plan involves the creation of a “water backbone” for the Salton Sea, which will start in the southern rim as a mix of current Salton Sea water and incoming freshwater from the New and Alamo Rivers. The backbone will enable this blended water to be delivered to several ongoing habitat conservation and dust suppression projects like the species conservation habitat, Red Hill Bay, and the Torres-Martinez wetlands.

Salton Sea
Photo credit: Jay Calderon and Richard Lui

However, the plan for future projects is less clear. The SSMP cites hydrologic modeling of predicted inflows, salinity, precipitation, evaporation, and water usage in order to estimate playa exposure and risk to humans and the environment. The initial conditions for these models were taken from as long ago as 1988 and only as recent as 2012, highlighting the pressing need for more environmental monitoring at the Sea. Currently, models predict that over 48,000 acres of playa will be exposed by 2028, but the SSMP acknowledges that the ongoing drought on the Colorado River is likely to further decrease inflows to the Salton Sea.

Phase 1 of the SSMP includes construction of 29,800 acres of habitat conservation and dust suppression projects. The types of projects are defined as:

  • Wetland habitat
  • Dry playa habitat
  • Mud, sandflat, and beach habitat
  • Mid- and deep-water habitat
  • Water dependent dust suppression (vegetation and flooding)
  • Waterless dust suppression (surface roughening, cover, or suppressant application)

The amount and location of these project types will depend on emissivity data and calculated “emissivity potential” for exposed playa, but will largely be focused on the north and south ends of the Sea because of the more rapid rates of playa exposure there. Exposed areas on the east and west sides of the water backbone infrastructure may be made available for agriculture or renewable energy projects.

The plan is broken up into three geographical and chronological pieces:

  1. New River West, including the initial water backbone infrastructure. Construction beginning ASAP.

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  2. New River East, which includes the species conservation habitat (SCH). Construction beginning in 2019.

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  3. Whitewater River, including the Torres-Martinez wetlands. Construction beginning in 2020.

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  4. Alamo River South, including Red Hill Bay. Construction beginning in 2021.

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  5. Alamo River North. Construction beginning in 2022.
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Over the next ten years, the SSMP will cost $303 million, with a large portion coming from the recently allocated CA bond funds. Other potential sources of funding include Prop 1, Prop 84, CA State Water Resources Control Board, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the long term plans for the Salton Sea remain up in the air, short term action by the State of California to suppress dust, protect public health, and mitigate losses in bird and fish habitats is finally in place.