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State Water Board Takes Action to Restore and Manage the Salton Sea

On November 7, 2017, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) adopted a revision to the order that governs the water transfer from Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) to San Diego County Water Authority (“SDCWA”). The new stipulated order adds 11 conditions that outline the state’s commitments to restore and manage the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is fed by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but growers are fallowing to generate water supplies for the IID–SDCWA water transfer. To make up for the reduction in inflows from agricultural runoff, the transfer agreement called for the delivery of mitigation water for the first 15 years. Those deliveries will stop at the end of this year.

Among the highlights of the new stipulated order is a confirmation that those deliveries of mitigation water will end as scheduled, but that other mitigation actions, such as an air quality plan that was incorporated into the original order, will continue. Other highlights include:

  • Determination that management of a smaller but sustainable Salton Sea is feasible;
  • Commitment by the state to develop 10-year management plans. Work on each 10-year phase must begin at least mid-way through each current period. The Phase 1 Salton Sea Management Plan was released in March 2017. (For background on the Phase 1 management plan, see “State Unveils 10-Year Plan to Address Playa Exposure at the Salton Sea,” JOW Spring 2017).
  • Establishment of annual milestones for habitat restoration and dust suppression on exposed playa through 2028. The milestones are cumulative with any shortfall carrying over to the next year’s obligation. Projects will be implemented on a total of 29,800 acres of exposed playa by December 31, 2028, as noted in the Phase 1 management plan.

The new stipulated order also includes terms that acknowledge the need for cooperation with other entities to implement and fund Salton Sea management efforts and recognize the state’s role as a catalyst for obtaining funding.

Funding has long been an issue for Salton Sea restoration attempts. The 10-year plan that was introduced in March 2017 has a $383 million price tag. The California Natural Resources Agency (“CNRA”) had identified $80 million in available funding (enough to cover the first 3 years of the plan) and noted potential sources for additional funding. Grants from the state Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide $21.5 million for habitat conservation, water conservation, wetland creation, and air quality mitigation. In a step toward meeting funding needs, SB 5, the parks bond sponsored by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), will go before voters in June 2018 with $200 million for Salton Sea projects included among the items that would be funded by the bond.

The imminent end to the delivery of mitigation water threatens to further degrade water quality and increase the amount of playa that is exposed, which releases toxic dust impacting human health, damaging crops and wildlife and hurting the tourism industry. The new stipulated order is the culmination of a series of actions from local, state, and federal government agencies to address these local crises.

IID petitioned the State Board in 2014 to make Salton Sea restoration a condition of the IID–SDCWA transfer. In December 2016, IID took a stronger political stand withholding approval of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and the domestic agreements related to Minute 323 (which was known as Minute 32x at the time) pending a solution for the Salton Sea. Speaking on a panel at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference, IID General Manager Kevin Kelley said, “If there is no going forward at the Salton Sea, then IID cannot help at Lake Mead.”

The state has addressed the issues at the Salton Sea by creating the Salton Sea Task Force in 2015, which developed a set of recommendations to be undertaken by CNRA, releasing the Phase 1 Salton Sea Management Plan, and adopting the new stipulated order.

The federal government executed a Memorandum of Understanding with CNRA regarding the coordination of management activities at the Salton Sea in 2016. In January 2017, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an order that included approval of an addendum to the MOU. The federal government has also provided a reality check on the estimated revenue from renewable energy projects at the Salton Sea. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a report in 2015 concluding that revenue streams from renewable energy projects are lower than previously thought, but that desalination using renewable energy may be a feasible solution for water quality issues at the Salton Sea.

Non-profits have also acted to address Salton Sea restoration needs. The Pacific Institute published a report in 2014 in which they calculated the cost of inaction. Their analysis showed that it would be cheaper to implement a restoration plan. In 2016, the Water Funder Initiative announced a funding goal to provide $10 million over 5 years to support Salton Sea restoration contingent upon development of a restoration with certain characteristics and planning elements.

(For background on actions related to the Salton Sea, see the Journal of Water Salton Sea archive and “Why Is the Salton Sea Over There?Hydrowonk Blog March 30, 2017).


Written by Marta L. Weismann