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.

Federal Support for the Salton Sea

In 2007, Senator Barbara Boxer, along with other sponsors, pushed to pass the Water Resources Development Act into law, overriding a presidential veto. In addition to other projects across the country, the bill laid out several steps for designing and implementing a series of pilot projects to investigate ways of avoiding and mitigating the possible impacts of the drying Salton Sea. First, pilot projects would be chosen based on their feasibility as described in the Department of Water Resources’ funding plan. Then, appropriate pilot projects—if approved by the state and the Salton Sea Authority—would be implemented with the state paying 35% of the cost and federal funding supplying the rest. The bill concludes with a federal spending authorization: $30,000,000, intended for the support of at least six separate pilot projects. Continue reading “Federal Support for the Salton Sea”

A Case for Coachella Conservation

As we have discussed before, the majority of Colorado River water distributed to California is allocated for agriculture. The Coachella Valley next to the Salton Sea represents one of the most productive agricultural regions in California and it is there where the majority of the water goes, with about 280,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water delivered annually. Dealing with a combination of water allocations, the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) is in a tight spot trying to meet state-mandated water use regulations while providing water to its increasing population. Continue reading “A Case for Coachella Conservation”

Salton Sea: May the (Task) Force be with you

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The Salton Sea Task Force convened in Sacramento on Tuesday to assess the progress of the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP), which has declared specific goals for habitat and shoreline restoration. The task force was led by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), and heard from four agencies with updates: the CA Natural Resources Agency, the Colorado River Regional Water Quality Control Board, the CA Air Resources Board, and the CA Energy Commission. All gave presentations ranging from fresh perspectives on older, well-known data, to hot off the press developments within their agencies. Continue reading “Salton Sea: May the (Task) Force be with you”

New Year’s Resolutions for the Salton Sea

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Since the 1980s, several studies have been conducted and many options have been evaluated to address the impending environmental challenges posed by the Salton Sea’s current conditions. Unfortunately, minimal changes have been implemented to improve the harsh conditions that are ever worsening for the local communities and ecosystems. Here at Salton Sea Sense, we are hopeful that 2016 will be the year that the Salton Sea finally gets the attention it needs to provide remediation for the exposed playa and secure a bright future. Continue reading “New Year’s Resolutions for the Salton Sea”

Desalting the Sea: Part 2

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As mentioned in Desalting the Sea: Part 1, the Salton Sea is undergoing increasing salinization. Desalination, or “desal” for short, is a commonly proposed option to restore habitat and ecosystem health, and its role in the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative has been discussed. Part 1 explained the details of thermal distillation, and this accompanying post will introduce membrane filtration, another common desal technique. Continue reading “Desalting the Sea: Part 2”

RECAP: Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors Meeting

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Last Friday, December 10, the Salton Sea Authority (SSA) held their monthly Board of Directors meeting in Palm Desert. Members of the communities around the Salton Sea had a chance to address the board during the public comments portion of the meeting, and several people took advantage of this opportunity. There were also reports from members and affiliates of the Salton Sea Authority, including Val Simon of the US Bureau of Reclamation, and Dr. Bill Brownlie of Tetra-Tech, plus others. You can find the list of presenters and any documents presented at the meeting here. The Board reiterated that they will accept technical proposals from the public in a technical review committee. Continue reading “RECAP: Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors Meeting”

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. Continue reading “Let’s be SSWIFT about it”

Dust to Dust

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While there are many risks associated with the drying of the Salton Sea, perhaps the most concerning is the risk to public health. Previous posts on this blog discussed the health effects of dust from the Salton Sea, and that these health effects could end up costing around $29 billion. However, you may be thinking that these risks and costs are exaggerations or scare tactics. How could the dust from the Salton Sea make such a big difference when it is relatively small (343 square miles) when compared to the whole Salton Basin area of 8,360 square miles? Also, the majority of the basin is not covered by crops to reduce the wind erosion and transport of dust. So how can the drying of the Salton Sea which is approximately 3% of the total basin area, have such a disproportionate impact on the air quality? The answers to these questions lie in the composition of the sediment that lies below the Salton Sea. Continue reading “Dust to Dust”