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.
The symposium began with enthusiastic encouragement from Imperial County Supervisor Michael Kelley and Riverside County Deputy Executive Director Brian Nestande about both the potential value and services a restored Sea can provide the region and state, and the need for expeditious actions. More than 75% of the Salton Sea lies within Imperial County and most of the inflow originates from Imperial Valley farms, so Kelley’s constituents are arguably the most highly influenced and influential in the Sea’s future. The north end of the Salton Sea is within Riverside County’s jurisdiction and Nestande shared the plans and priorities for the region. Utilizing bond funds, Riverside County plans to move forward with a smaller, engineered lake at the north end that will be coordinated with the State’s 10-year plan. Nestande emphasized the importance of keeping water on the playa and restoring habitat as soon as possible.
The first panel—moderated by UCR Professor Will Porter—focused on the science and recent findings surrounding air quality issues for those living in the Salton Sea area. Panelists included Alex Frie, a PhD student in Environmental Sciences at UC Riverside; Earl Withycombe, an air quality specialist for the California Air Resources Control Board; Humberto Lugo, air quality manager for the Comite Civico del Valle in the Salton Sea Air Basin; and Amato Even, an assistant professor at the University of California San Diego. Themes of the talks included the seasonal- and locational-dependence of public health challenges at the Salton Sea, as well as the benefits gained from simple, reliable air quality monitoring stations throughout the region.
Social and environmental justice issues associated with the Salton Sea were the focus of the second panel, moderated by UC Riverside PhD student and IGERT Fellow Holly Mayton. The focus of this panel was to provide the audience, including several policy makers, with critical information on local health concerns from communities that often get drowned out by larger, politically connected and well-financed groups. Panelists, such as Silvia Paz of Coachella Valley Better Health Communities, offered practical ideas and opportunities to meaningfully engage impacted communities through participatory policymaking activities. Malissa McKeith (Citizens United for Resources and the Environment), an environmental attorney who is considered an expert on the Colorado River, spoke about the environmental, public health, and economic consequences of engineered water flows within the region. Speaking from their decades of experience living the Salton Basin, with and without the Sea, the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Tribe (represented by Tribal Administrator Alberto Ramirez) presented their ongoing wetlands restoration projects that seek to work with the new natural environment on the north end of the Sea.
UCR PhD student and IGERT Fellow Todd Luce presented a unique history of the Salton Sea and the years preceding its formation. Numerous groups and individuals had both envisioned and proposed a water-filled desert oasis in the Salton Basin long before an engineering miscalculation made the Salton Sea a reality in 1905. Luce reminds us that, regardless of this “accident”, the rise of agriculture (and the resulting irrigation runoff) in the Imperial Valley during the early 1900s would have created a Salton Sea in one form or another that would still exist today.
A group discussion of relevant federal, state, and regional policy was led by Kurt Schwabe (UCR). Phil Rosentrater of the Salton Sea Authority stressed the urgency of creating policy to support shovel-ready projects at local level, as opposed to more scientific studies. Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy, Bruce Wilcox, highlighted the State of California’s Salton Sea Management Program 10-year plan, which includes specific provisions for action at the Salton Sea. Schwabe was also joined by State Water Resources Control Boardmember Joaquin Esquivel, who highlighted the Board’s limited jurisdiction over the Salton Sea and guessed that the federal government would eventually need to play a larger role. Genevieve Johnson (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) echoed this idea and said that USBR is “waiting in the wings” until their resources can most effectively benefit the Sea.
Research on modern issues and potential solutions was the topic of the final panel. Panelists included Dr. Tim Bradley (UC Irvine), who presented an ecological update on the Salton Sea. Bradley pointed out that although the ecosystem previously associated with the Sea has collapsed, a transition to a saline-adapted ecosystem (brine shrimp, etc.) is expected over the next decade. As the Sea receeds and leaves salt-crusted playa exposed, Imperial Irrigation District (IID) will continue to invest in dust suppression activities and research, such as surface roughening and desert foliage that have shown promising results, according to panelist Jessica Lovecchio from IID. Additionally, Dr. Lucia Levers (University of Minnesota) presented an economic model on the feasibility of buying water from Imperial Valley farmers (in exchange for fallowing their fields or more efficient irrigation). Her results support the possibility of acquiring additional water from farmers within the valley to support dust suppression and habitat restoration projects. Dr. Drew Story (UCR) followed Levers by comparing these estimates to the economics of a sea water import scenario, arguing that the additional time (30+ years) and upfront investment (roughly 100x the cost of buying water from farmers) make this option highly impractical for the needs of the Salton Sea today.
To end the day, Doug Barnum presented some of his candid insights gained during his 18-year tenure as lead Salton Sea scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. He believes a sustainable future for the Salton Sea will include adaptive management strategies, which requires that research be conducted in parallel with project implementation at the Salton Sea. Notably, Barnum reminded academics and policymakers in the room that many major discoveries in understanding the complexities of the Salton Sea have been the result of scientific inquiry, and the role of research cannot be neglected as we seek to address the shrinking shorelines in the coming years.
You can download presentations from the symposium here.
About the organizers: Student advisor Matt Brabant, (Water SENSE IGERT), Todd Luce (IGERT fellow), Holly Mayton (IGERT fellow), Parisa Parsafar (IGERT fellow), and S. Drew Story (IGERT fellow) organized this symposium, in collaboration with advisory committee Doug Barnum (USGS, retired), Kurt Schwabe (UCR), and Barry Wallerstein (UCR).
About the location: UCR Palm Desert expands the reach of University of California, Riverside into the Coachella Valley. Established as a teaching and research center in 2005, UCR Palm Desert is a catalyst for diversification by providing relevant regional research, offering innovative academic programs that attract and retain world class talent to the region, convening and creating partnerships that advance the public good, and enriching the cultural life of the community.