The world is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the Salton Sea and its impact on humans and to the environment, but what can be done to save the Salton Sea? The attempts to investigate and reduce the salinity in the Sea began in the 1960s [1]. However, the increased agricultural development and subsequent irrigation run-off into the Sea resulted in elevation of the water surface level and overlooking the need to control the salinity. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when the Federal and State agencies started looking into the Sea again. In 1992, the Reclamation Projects Authorization and Adjustment Act authorized the United States Department of the Interior to conduct research to reduce and control the salinity of the Salton Sea [2]. Soon after, multiple agencies including Salton Sea Authority (SSA) started working with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other federal and state entities, which has led to numerous proposed alternative solutions to protect the Sea. In January 2007, Reclamation released Restoration of the Salton Sea Summary Report, in cooperation with the State of California and the Salton Sea Authority that proposed six restoration alternatives1. Most of these restoration strategies aim to control salinity and water level of the Sea and include constructing a dam or barrier in the middle of the Sea, constructing low dikes concentrically around the interior of the Sea, restoring the shoreline habitat, or make no attempt to intervene at the Sea. Another report, Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program Preferred Alternative Report and Funding Plan, was prepared by California Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Game for the California Natural Resources Agency and released in May 2007. This proposal included eight alternative solutions [3]. Based on the evaluation of each of the alternatives, they developed one preferred alternative solution that provides habitats to support to marine fishery and fish-eating birds, manages air quality and water flows, and builds repository to store excess salts. This report was submitted to the State legislature and in January 2008, the State of California’s legislative Analyst’s Office released a Restoring the Salton Sea, report analyzing these alternatives [4]. Although these multiple alternative restoration plans were proposed, lack of consensus among the agencies and stakeholders due to different interests among them (salinity, air quality, fishery, endangered birds, etc.) hindered the progress to actually implement any restoration plan.

Figure 1. Preferred Alternative recommended by the Resources Secretary to the Legislature4.
Figure 1. Preferred Alternative recommended by the Resources Secretary to the Legislature. [4] Click to expand.
As of today, the most recent restoration plan was released by the Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative in October 2014 [5]. This program is divided into three phases. Phase I will develop an initial concept design plan and implement current permitted projects. Phase II will focus on the development of a habitat and renewable-energy resources, primarily geothermal. Lastly in Phase III, a restoration plan will be developed with the combination of projects from Phase I and II. Included in this program is a list of small projects that have identified funding sources and are in the process of completing environmental review and design; State of California Species Conservation Habitat, Red Hill Bay Project, Torres Martinez Wetlands Project, Coachella Valley Water District Constructed Habitat Project, Solar Technology Evaluation Pilot Project, etc.

Figure 2. Salton Sea Projects Map (draft April 16,2015) 6
Figure 2. Salton Sea Projects Map (draft April 16,2015) [6] Click to expand.
For decades extensive studies have been done in and around the Salton Sea to develop the “best” restoration plan that integrates all of the stakeholder’s diverse interests. If any of these proposed plans were executed 50 years ago, there would be less damage to the Sea than now. There is no concrete or permanent plan yet, but small projects around the Sea are taking off and there is still hope to save the Sea (see Figure 2). We have waited too long to see changes at the Sea and the agencies and stakeholders must come to an agreement soon before the damage becomes too great to revert the current conditions.

Written by Caroline Kim


[1] Reclamation U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. 2007. “Restoration of the Salton Sea: Summary Report”. Available at http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/saltnsea/FinalSummaryRpt.pdf

[2]  Verburg, Katherine Ott. 2010. “The Colorado River Documents, 2008” Denver, Colo. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region.

[3] California Department of Water Resources “Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program Preferred Alternative Report and Funding Plan” Available at http://www.water.ca.gov/saltonsea/docs/Funding_Plan.pdf

[4] Legislative Analyst’s office. “Restoring the Salton Sea”. Available at http://www.lao.ca.gov/2008/rsrc/salton_sea/salton_sea_01-24-08.aspx

[5] The Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative. 2014. “Adaptive Management Program: A Roadmap to Developing and Managing Projects Around the Salton Sea”. Available at  http://www.iid.com/home/showdocument?id=9182

[6] U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region “Salton Sea Projects Map (draft Apr 16,2015)” Available at http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/SaltonSeaProjectsMap.pdf