Have A Comment?

We would like to invite you to write a guest post for the Hydrowonk Blog … more

State Unveils 10-Year Plan to Address Playa Exposure at the Salton Sea

On March 16, 2017, the California Natural Resources Agency (“CNRA”) released a draft 10-year plan to improve air quality and wildlife habitat at the Salton Sea. The 10-year plan is phase 1 of the Salton Sea Management Plan, a larger effort to implement recommendations made by the Governor’s Salton Sea Task Force. In October 2015, Governor Brown directed CNRA to undertake Task Force recommendations that provide goals for the scope and timing of shoreline habitat restoration. The plan is also designed to meet the state’s commitments under the Federal-State Memorandum of Understand (“MOU”) on the Salton Sea. The MOU which addresses coordination of federal and state efforts to address changes in the elevation of the Salton Sea was executed in August 2016 and amended in January 2017. (For more on the governor’s direction to CNRA, see “Brown Administration Advances Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW December 2015. For more on the MOU, see “Actions Announced to Advance Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW Fall 2016 and “Secretary Jewell Orders Actions to Address Historic Colorado River Drought,” JOW Winter 2017.)

The Salton Sea faces two major threats—water quality, which impacts the ability of the sea to support various wildlife species, and declining elevation, which exposes playa that releases toxic dust impacting human health, damaging crops and wildlife and hurting the tourism industry.

Modeling projects year-by-year playa exposure during the 10-year period from 2018-2028. Cumulative exposure over the period totals 48,300 acres—up from the 45,000 acres projected in the environmental documentation for the Imperial Irrigation District–San Diego County Water Authority water transfer (“IID-SDCWA water transfer”) due to updates in the data and modeling. CNRA will conduct additional modeling to account for the impacts that the Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”) might have on inflows to the Salton Sea.

The draft plan addresses playa exposure and proposes constructing habitat and dust suppression projects on 29,800 acres of exposed playa over the 10-year period from 2018 to 2028. Efforts are focused on the north and south ends of the lake, where playa exposure is expected to be greatest. Some of the exposed playa may be used for renewable energy projects, reclaimed for agriculture or may not be emissive. However, most of the difference between the projected exposure and the number of acres addressed by projects in the plan is on the east and west sides of the lake and would require additional infrastructure.

A key feature of the plan is the “water backbone infrastructure,” which is a part of IID’s Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative. The infrastructure is designed to supply agricultural return flow water to the south end of the Salton Sea for dust suppression, habitat projects and other land uses. It is comprised of a series of outlets that will intercept agricultural return flow water from the Alamo and New Rivers (which currently deliver inflows to the Salton Sea) and deliver them to water management ponds, where they will be blended with water from the Salton Sea. The resulting brackish water will be released to a distribution system for delivery to habitat and dust suppression projects. A report by the Audubon Society detailing the salinity levels tolerated by different avian species will guide locations and other details of the various habitat areas.

Three existing projects have been incorporated into the plan:

  • The Torrez-Martinez Wetland Project is an 85-acre project undertaken by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians to address the impacts of the IID–SDCWA water transfer. According to the tribe, the Salton Sea is expected to shrink by 50% after the delivery of mitigation water ends at the end of 2017. The project is located on the north end of the sea and consists of seven water quality cells and four habitat ponds.
  • The Red Hill Bay Restoration Project is a 420-acre project undertaken by the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge to provide shallow-water habitat for migratory birds on the south end of the Salton Sea.
  • The Species Conservation Habitat Project, located at the south end of the Salton Sea near the Alamo River and New River delta areas, is a state project designed to construct up to 3,770 acres of shallow-water habitat ponds, depending on available funding.

The Salton Sea has been in decline for decades, but restoration efforts have taken a new urgency because of the imminent end of mitigation water deliveries from the IID–SDCWA water transfer. In addition, IID has withheld its approval of the DCP pending a solution to the playa exposure issue at the Salton Sea. (For more on the DCP and IID’s position, see “Failure Is Not an Option: CRWUA Keynote Panel Discusses the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 32x,” JOW Winter 2017.)

While the 10-year plan would address the playa exposure issue, it may face a funding problem, like the restoration proposals that came before it. The plan has a $383 million price tag. CNRA has identified $80 million in available funding from Prop 1, Prop 84, the California Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The available funding would cover just over the first three years of projected costs. Potential sources for additional funding include:

  • The IID–SDCWA Water Transfer Joint Powers Authority (“JPA”)
    The state will work with the JPA to determine if funding in the existing water mitigation could be used for the plan.
  • The Federal-State MOU
    Under the MOU, DOI will seek federal funding up to $30 million in federal appropriations, approved budgets and other opportunities. (For additional information on the MOU, see “Actions Announced to Advance Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW Fall 2016).
  • The Water Funder Initiative (“WFI”)
    WFI has a goal to provide $10 million to support the Salton Sea Management Plan. Funding is contingent upon federal, state and local agencies taking certain actions to meet restoration goals. (For additional information on the WFI funding goal, see “Actions Announced to Advance Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW Fall 2016).
  • The 2016 Water Resources Development Act (“WRDA”)
    The 2016 WRDA authorizes $30 million for Salton Sea restoration. The funds, however, have not been appropriated.
  • Additional partnerships with USDA
    CNRA says it may be possible to establish a partnership between USDA and the Salton Sea Management Plan under the Farm Bill.
  • Additional state, local and private funding
    CNRA believes that “future state appropriations, water agencies, local infrastructure financing districts, geothermal leases, and other public and private sources” could provide funding or in-kind support.


Written by Marta L. Weismann


Note: JOW Editor Rodney T. Smith was invited to attend the Salton Sea Tour sponsored by the Water Education Foundation on March 16th, the day the Natural Resources Agency released its 10-Year Plan. He reports that he “was stunned at the decline in the Salton Sea elevation with the attendant increase in the amount of exposed playa laced with residues of toxic/unhealthful chemicals and organics.” For additional observations and an analysis of why the Salton Sea elevation has declined so dramatically, see Why Is the Salton Sea Over There? on the Hydrowonk Blog.