Pacific Institute Study Calculates Costs of Salton Sea Inaction

The Salton Sea and the area around it have been in decline for decades.  Economic deterioration such as the disappearance of the tourism industry in the region and ecological symptoms like increasing salinity, receding shorelines and fish kills are widely acknowledged as a problem.  However, there has been little action to address the situation.  A recent report from the Pacific Institute argues that part of the problem is that there is a tacit assumption that there are no costs to inaction.  However, as the report’s author, Michael Cohen, argues, the costs of inaction far outweigh any current proposals to restore the Salton Sea or mitigate the impacts of its decline.

The study attempts to quantify the costs of inaction by calculating the present value of inaction.  The report estimates these costs along five different dimensions: public health, property values, ecological deterioration, agricultural productivity, and recreation revenue.  Some of the most substantial costs could come from toxic dust from dried-up lakebed and the degradation of a major migratory stop for birds.

In all, the report estimates that the present value of inaction is at least $29 billion, and likely higher.  For comparison, the present value of the proposed rehabilitation plan is $10 billion, with $150 million per year in maintenance.

The proposed rehabilitation plan was drafted by the California Resources Agency in 2007 to meet the state’s obligation under the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) to develop a restoration alternative and funding plan.  The plan was developed with extensive input from local stakeholders and state and federal agencies so that it would be acceptable to a majority of stakeholders.  It would dramatically alter the Sea, creating saline habitat cells at the northwest and southeast ends, a horseshoe-shaped marine habitat connecting the ends, and would build a levee allowing much of the middle of the current sea to go dry and serve as a brine sink.  The intent is for the saline and marine habitat to support the range of species currently using the Sea, while the brine sink would regulate the salinity of those water bodies.  The Pacific Institute study does not evaluate this plan, instead using it as a benchmark for cost comparison.

Meanwhile, others envision different futures for the Sea.  Tim Krantz, a University of Redlands professor and expert on the Salton Sea, recently outlined some potential solutions in an LA Times interview.  One option might be to pump water between the Sea and the Gulf of California, while the late Congressman George Brown dreamed bigger and pushed for navigable locks from the Sea to the Gulf.  Krantz argues that a public-private partnership utilizing the huge source of geothermal energy near the Sea is the only way to fund restoration plans, whatever they may be.  Even if the costs of inaction are higher than the costs of action, it’s unclear that public authorities have the money to do anything at all.

Written by Stratecon Staff