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Now is the Time for Action at the Salton Sea

August 20, 2019
California has a 10-year plan to address the environmental and health crisis at its largest lake. Now it’s time to implement it.

It comes as a surprise to many that California’s largest lake is in the southern part of the state, about 30 miles from the border with Mexico. It is a highly arid region, rich with agricultural production thanks to water from the Colorado River.

The current version of the Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when floodwaters on the Colorado River broke through an irrigation levee and – for two years – filled the historic Salton Sink. The Salton Sea became a tourist destination for decades, once referred to as the “miracle in the desert.”

But over time, the Salton Sea has been shrinking due to reductions in inflows and ongoing evaporation in the desert, resulting in negative consequences for the local communities and wildlife.

The region’s children and elderly suffer some of the highest asthma rates in California. As the amount of water flowing into the lake has decreased, thousands of acres of highly emissive soil (playa) have become exposed, further polluting the region’s already-poor air quality.

The Salton Sea is also one of the most important bird habitats in North America, serving as a major nesting, wintering and stopover site for 400 different species. As less water flows into the sea, it will become more saline and inhospitable to birds, fish and insects.

In 2016, the State of California put together a plan to address the negative effects of reduced inflows to the Salton Sea. In June 2018, California voters approved Proposition 68, a $4 billion parks bond that included $200 million in state funding for Salton Sea restoration.

Combined with $80 million that was previously approved, Prop 68 provided a critical funding base to implement California’s 10-year plan to begin addressing the lake’s urgent environmental and health threats. It also provided new hope for the region’s residents, who have waited a long time for action.

Yet over a year later, although some progress has occurred, more action is needed.

The state failed to meet its 2018 requirement to restore 500 acres of shoreline and is not currently expected to meet 2019 goals either. Dust remains an urgent problem for nearby residents, with airborne dust from exposed playa adding to pre-existing dust and contaminants from other sources. Sensitive bird populations are decreasing at alarming rates.

At the moment, money is not the issue. The Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) needs to continue building efficient management and staffing teams in Sacramento and locally at the Sea to direct the funding where it can do good on the ground today. And the SSMP needs to identify more ways for local residents to be fully included in plans affecting their families and livelihoods.

With each day of additional delay, the human and environmental costs mount. New opportunities to build a better future for the Salton Sea remain in limbo.

Since 2016, the Walton Family Foundation has committed $5 million to organizations supporting the planning, fundraising and now implementation of the management plan, as well as projects to improve public health in the area. We have worked closely with other funders to push for lasting progress at the Sea.

Over the past few years, the foundation has supported educational tours for decision makers on the importance of addressing public health and environmental issues at the Sea and has provided ongoing support for the community engagement process associated with implementation of the state’s 10-year plan. We continue to seek a strong accountability mechanism to oversee the restoration progress.

We’ve made restoration of the Salton Sea a priority because we understand that continued instability presents an unacceptable risk to local residents, the environment and long-term water management plans throughout the Colorado River basin.

The foundation has supported non-partisan education and pilot projects that help water districts to secure millions of dollars in federal conservation funds to improve public health and wildlife habitat at the Salton Sea.

We applauded the new multi-state Drought Contingency Plan – aimed at avoiding future water crises in the Colorado River basin – which was structured to avoid impacts on the Salton Sea.

Implementation of California’s Salton Sea plan can improve environmental conditions and create new economic development opportunities such as Riverside County’s proposed North Lake project.

We have been encouraged by commitments that Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot have made to prioritize the Salton Sea. We are excited to hear that Imperial Irrigation District and the state made progress on an agreement to allow the state access to restoration sites. But more needs to be done – soon – to improve staffing and governance of the state’s management program, so restoration work can scale up to reach number of constructed acres required each year.

This is a pivotal moment in the Salton Sea’s history. Actions taken – or not taken – in the next two years can chart the course for the next decade. Let’s make the right choices, together.

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