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Imperial Irrigation District Releases Comprehensive Framework For Salton Sea Restoration

On July 28, 2015, the Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) released a White Paper on the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, which will act as the framework for a multi-phase restoration project for the Salton Sea.

The framework follows the petition to the State Water Resources Control Board (“SWRCB”) in November 2014 in which IID asked SWRCB to revise the 2002 water rights order to require state implementation and funding of a Salton Sea Restoration Plan as a condition of the transfer. (For more on the petition, see “Imperial Irrigation District Petitions State Board For Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW January 2015).

The plan has a $9 billion price tag.  IID argues that fiscal responsibility dictates that the State of California invest $3.15 billion—with $150 million coming from Proposition 1 funds for use during FY 2015-16, $1 billion directly invested in renewable energy from the Salton Sea, $1 billion from revenue bonds issued over the next 10 years and secured by geothermal energy leases, and $1 billion from “cap and trade” auctions in Imperial County between 2015 and 2025.

IID Board President Stephen Benson says that there is no reason to delay implementation of a restoration plan.

“The time for studies has passed.  Now is the time for real action.  We urge the state of California. . .to begin immediately,”  said Benson.

Benson’s urgency is driven by forecasts of  the Salton Sea’s health and related impacts. The Salton Sea is forecasted to shrink by an area of roughly 100 square miles by the middle of the century.  This will expose vast tracts of highly emissive playa which often create dust storms that, when inhaled, can cause respiratory diseases and asthma.  Up to 100 tons of dust could be added to the air each day, which would have the potential to result in more than $29 billion in costs from lower property values and health care costs associated with respiratory illnesses.  At the same time, the disappearance of this water could accelerate the loss habitat for both migrating waterfowl that use the Salton Sea as a primary resting place during their migration along the Pacific Flyway, and other birds who call the Sea their year-round home.

Economically, the region is equipped with the largest untapped source of geothermal energy in the state, and has excellent potential to build or expand solar arrays.  If enacted, these new initiatives in energy production could provide well-paying jobs that are acutely needed in Imperial County, as well as provide funding for the restoration efforts so deeply necessary in the Salton Sea.

The framework outlines five overarching goals that touch on each of the major issues: ensuring water supply reliability for California, protecting California’s health, carbon-free energy, ecosystem protection and restoration, and economic growth.  The individual timelines for each of these goals are broken up into short-term (2016-2017) projects that are “shovel ready and have immediate impact”, medium-term (2018-2023) projects that “will take effect when the Salton Sea water supply changes,” and long-term (2024 and beyond) steps that “will sustain the goals of the plan for long-term human, ecosystem, and economic health.”

Environmental groups, labor and environmental justice advocates, IID, Imperial County, most water agencies that are parties to the QSA, and Governor Brown’s administration share a growing consensus that it will be feasible to restore the Salton Sea to a lower but still sustainable water level for future generations. Short-term plans will encompass those that have already been approved, namely the development of geothermal and solar infrastructure to generate more than 1000 MW of energy and habitat restoration.  After the end of IID’s QSA-mandated mitigation water deliveries to the Salton Sea in 2018, the renewable energy projects will serve as a funding source for medium-term investment in new projects to offset the detrimental effects of surface elevation recession.  IID expects long-term goals to be a collaboration between the state, IID, Imperial County, and other local agencies.

The final framework document was presented to the SWRCB Public Forum on September 16.  At the forum, IID General Manager Kevin Kelley echoed sentiments he had expressed during the November 2014 meeting, asking SWRCB to act as a referee and timekeeper for the time-sensitive water reliability issues at stake in the Salton Sea.  Kelley further requested the Board hold an oversight hearing before the end of the year to instill the same sense of urgency to the state of California.


Written by Stratecon Staff


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