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Working Together to Restore Health to the Salton Sea

March 18, 2019
Additional funding is critical to help protect the environment, economy and public health

Over the past five years, the seven Colorado River Basin states have been working to develop a series of drought contingency plans (DCPs) to safeguard water levels at Lake Mead.

Responding to a 19-year drought, leaders throughout the basin are at last close to finalizing the agreements necessary to bolster conservation and safeguard water levels on the river.

The DCPs will ensure that the Colorado River basin can balance water supplies and demands in a way that supports a healthy river and environment. The future of the Colorado River depends on the conservation and flexibility within the DCP agreements.

We commend the progress made so far in California, and throughout the basin, but work remains to get the agreements across the finish line. The DCP is essential to protecting water levels at Lake Mead, and it gives California water agencies additional flexibility in water management.

In addition to work necessary to finalize the DCP, there has been a heightened focus in recent months on the goal to obtain additional federal funding, and more action from the state, to address the issues facing the Salton Sea.

Dead trees at the Salton Sea in California.

The conditions at the Salton Sea have far-reaching ramifications for public health, the environment, and the economies of California's Imperial and Coachella Valleys.

The lake was formed in 1905 when floodwaters on the Colorado broke through an irrigation levee and – for two years – filled the Salton Sink, which sits below sea level. The lake created by the water was sustained for decades by runoff from the irrigated lands of the Imperial Valley.

But with no natural outlet, the lake’s salinity levels have risen steadily over the years, threatening not only fish and wildlife populations but also devastating the tourist economy.

As the lake began to shrink, salinity levels rose further. This exposed soil contaminated by decades of runoff that included agricultural chemicals; deadly toxins including arsenic and selenium now pollute the region’s air and create serious health problems for local residents.

Addressing the Salton Sea has been a key priority of the Walton Family Foundation and other funding partners for years.

Alongside other philanthropic organizations, we pledged $10 million over five years to work with the state, the federal government, local agencies and community organizations to support implementation of the State of California’s Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP).

Many organizations have played a role in developing the 10-year plan for the Sea, ensuring accountability for the SSMP through a stipulated order from the State Water Resources Control Board, and ensuring funding will be available for the Salton Sea through measures like Proposition 68.

We can continue to work together to do even more.

For example, there are key provisions in the new Farm Bill that can help western irrigated agriculture become more resilient and help agricultural communities, including in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Working in coordination with the state, local agencies and conservation organizations, we can build momentum for bringing additional funding here to the Salton Sea.

Alongside the strong leadership in California under Gov. Gavin Newsom and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, we stand ready to work side by side with local agencies to ensure that the construction schedule for dust suppression and habitat restoration projects catches up with its goals.

Together we can support a healthier Salton Sea and finalize the DCP to protect public health, the environment, and the economy of the Salton Sea region.

A version of this article appeared in the Desert Sun.

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