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Actions Announced to Advance Salton Sea Restoration

A Memorandum of Understanding between the federal government and the State of California was executed and a funding goal from the Water Funder Initiative was announced in late August. Both actions serve to move Salton Sea restoration efforts forward.

Restoration of the closed-basin water body has been an issue of concern since the early 1990s, when fish die-offs spurred congress to pass legislation in 1992 and 1998 aimed at improving and protecting the Salton Sea and allowing for its continued use as an irrigation drainage reservoir. Restoration has taken on new urgency, however, because the delivery of mitigation water under the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”) will end in 2018.

The Federal-State MOU

The MOU was executed between the U.S. Department of the Interior (“DOI”) and the California Natural Resources Agency (“CNRA”)  to foster coordination and collaboration between the agencies as they work toward meeting California’s goal of 25,000 acres of resource mitigation. The document reflects an intention to work jointly with each other and with other interested parties.

DOI and CNRA will each appoint a senior-level policy official to a Salton Sea Working Group that will oversee implementation of the MOU and ensure continuity in management efforts. They will also explore developing a common decision support system that would integrate the analyses developed under the MOU and existing studies and data. Working with other parties includes coordinating, collaborating or partnering with affected tribes, other federal and state agencies, local governments and agencies, and non-profit, philanthropic and academic institutions—and conducting an analysis of land ownership to determine where coordination is needed.

Additional actions include expanding and integrating science and monitoring programs—and assessing the possibility of sharing offices and other physical space to reduce cost and improve efficacy of science activities; pursuing a multi-year partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”), tribes and local agencies to improve air and water quality; and expediting and prioritizing permitting processes at the Salton Sea.

DOI has also committed to seek funding through legislative appropriations, approved budgets and other opportunities for operation and maintenance of habitat and dust suppression projects, state managed monitoring, continued scientific and technical support and input on selenium management from USGS, and a potential pilot project to increase security of California’s Colorado River water supplies. The pilot project would be completed under Phase 2 of the Colorado River Basin Study and would be consistent with DOI efforts to increase water supply security for the other Basin States.

“Our partnership at the Salton Sea will bring real benefits to this vital California resource and provide stability for surrounding communities,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor. “The federal government will continue to work with our partners on our shared interests by identifying innovative approaches to help the State find a path forward to a sustainable Salton Sea.”

“We welcome the commitments and investments from the federal government to augment the significant resources and state investments we are making, as well as their support of our program to help avert an environmental and public health crisis at the Salton Sea,” said California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird. “The state of California has committed more than $80 million in voter-approved bond funds to restore habitat and suppress dust at the lake in the near term, but greater investment by multiple agencies will be needed. Today’s agreement between the State and U.S. Department of Interior moves us closer to the level of investment and participation it will take to protect public health and the ecological values threatened by a receding Salton Sea.”

A Funding Goal from the Water Funder Initiative

On the same day that the MOU was executed, the Water Funder Initiative (“WFI”) announced a goal to provide $10 million over five years to support implementation of a comprehensive restoration plan for the Salton Sea. According to a statement released by the WFI, “The funding could include loan guarantees, civil society support, private sector engagement, economic diversification programs, and other initiatives that benefit wildlife habitats and local communities.”

The organization made their funding commitment contingent upon four major points. A restoration roadmap that would protect public health, promote social and environmental justice, meet wildlife habitat management needs, and meet the state’s goal of restoring 25,000 acres over 10 years must be developed. The roadmap must be developed in coordination with California’s participation in the Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Parallel and coordinated efforts to develop Imperial Valley’s renewable energy resources should be implemented. Finally, the federal government and the State of California must make funding commitments sufficient to fulfill the objectives of the roadmap.

WFI is a “collaborative effort to identify and achieve promising water solutions through strategic philanthropic investments in the United States, starting in the American West, where the scarcity and reliability of clean water are urgent issues.” Support is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Pisces Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. The Energy Foundation, David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Water Foundation provide expert guidance.

In a statement about its goal to provide funding for Salton Sea restoration efforts, WFI said, “We must act now to capitalize on the enormous progress that has been made to address the challenges faced by the Salton Sea. This is the time to commit. There is a great opportunity to finalize a framework this year that could guide efforts over the next decade to protect public health, strengthen the environment, put us on a path to a more sustainable water future, and develop vital renewable resources. We hope this breakthrough is achieved and urge the California and Federal leaders to take advantage of this moment.”

Other Measures

President Obama announced both the MOU and the WFI funding goal in his comments at the Lake Tahoe Summit on August 31, 2016. He also highlighted efforts by the Department of Energy to spur the development of renewable energy in the Salton Sea area and discussed two projects that NRCS is finalizing in California under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program—one in the Salton Sea area and one in the Sierra Valley. The programs are designed to prompt air, water, and wildlife habitat conservation projects. Federal funding totals $7.5 million for the Salton Sea project and $9.9 million for the Sierra Valley project. Project partners for both projects are contributing a combined total of $60 million.

Historically, funding has been the hang up for restoration of the Salton Sea. In 2007, CNRA released a restoration plan with a $9-billion price tag (in 2007 dollars). With a recession and a change in administration following shortly thereafter, the plan was considered financially infeasible. In 2014, the Pacific Institute released a study calculating the cost of inaction at $29 billion, compared to a now $10-billion price tag for the 2007 plan (see Pacific Institute Study Calculates Costs of Salton Sea Inaction, JOW October 2014). In 2015, Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) released its own restoration plan with a $9-billion price tag (see Imperial Irrigation District Releases Comprehensive Framework For Salton Sea Restoration, JOW September 2015). But funding sources have not panned out. In an effort to find an innovative funding source, IID conducted a preliminary study estimating that renewable energy projects could provide $4.1 billion in revenues over a 30-year period. A follow-on study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, however, found that geothermal lease royalties, which are available now, could provide annual revenues of $7 million to $15 million, and development of renewable energy projects could generate $5.6 million to $77.8 million per year—“but are dependent on future changes in technology and policy conditions,” (see NREL Study on Using Renewable Energy to Benefit Salton Sea Restoration Projects Lower Revenue Streams than Previous Estimates, Highlights Desalination Using Renewable Energy as Feasible Solution, JOW January 2016). So a question remains about whether the recent actions will stimulate enough funding to implement a comprehensive restoration plan.


Written by Marta L. Weismann