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Last week, Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) released a draft of a proposal developed to be presented to the State of California. This proposal, named the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative (SSRREI) is different from previous remediation proposals submitted on behalf of the Salton Sea by various groups. This proposal in particular does not merely ask for a large sum of money, but delineates just how the state can fund the project and recover its investment. Prior to the SSRREI, the most recent proposal required nearly $10 billion from the state. The SSRREI asks for only $3.15 billion, less than a third of the previous number, and proposes that investing in the geothermal energy potential at the Sea would allow the state to recoup its investment.

The authors of Salton Sea Sense are thrilled that IID and Imperial County are proposing a comprehensive and thorough plan for the benefit of the Sea and the State of California. The proposal provides for proven habitat restoration technologies, sustainable economic development in the area, and develops reliable and low-carbon energy production. The plan is both realistic and aggressive, but reasonable in what it requires of California. We support the SSRREI and encourage you to read the draft of the plan’s summary. Once you have read the summary, you can read the technical document Part I and Part II (and proceed to submit comments or concerns directly to IID here).

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As the terms of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) approach their expiration date and with major restoration efforts for the Salton Sea still not a reality, it is reasonable that stakeholders are becoming anxious. The IID is under stress due to the new water allocations and has recognized that the time to act is now if the Salton Sea is to be saved. Being one of the stakeholders with more to lose, the IID wants action now. IID is asking the State of California to respect their end of the bargain and pick up the tab, as was promised when the governor signed the QSA legislation into law in 2003. The IID is providing an attractive plan that is realistic, and even under budget by 2003 standards. Now, we are only waiting for a response from the State.

The SSRREI contains provisions for the creation of a series of wetland ponds and canals to provide habitat for the endangered desert pupfish as well as the myriad of bird species that call the Salton Sea home for some part of the year. This habitat restoration plan is feasible in that it does not rely upon outside freshwater sources, but instead will better utilize water from agricultural drains and from the New and Alamo rivers. Furthermore, this type of restoration has already been tested and proven to work by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). If this initiative is put in place, it will protect the wildlife surrounding the Salton Sea and prevent a collapse of this ecological oasis. If this initiative is not funded and no action is taken, the current ecosystem will be destroyed and the loss of biodiversity at the Salton will be a true tragedy.

A dry Salton Sea would also emit dangerous dust that could lead to increased incidents of cancer and asthma around the Sea and beyond. The SSRREI provides strategies for the mitigation of these emissions via the installation of wind barriers, the establishment of native plant species, and the use of soil binders and gravel to reduce dust formation. The dust mitigation plans are feasible because they are low maintenance, long lasting, and require little to no water from outside sources. If this plan is implemented, the Salton Sea will have a safe, healthy future. If this plan is not put into action, the dust from the Salton Sea will reduce air quality in the Inland Empire to historical lows and cause serious health issues for the surrounding residents. The economic loss from the increased cancer and asthma risk will far outpace the cost of action.

Outside of the physical and ecological issues facing the Salton Sea, which usually get the most attention in the media, the SSRREI does an excellent job of acknowledging and attempting to address the social and economic development of the communities that live in the area. The plan cites the estimated 1700 MW of untapped geothermal and solar energy in the area, which could create up to 170 permanent jobs and over 600 construction jobs PER 100 MW of development. With the addition of jobs created through habitat restoration projects and the recreation opportunities created by restoration of the Salton Sea, this plan has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of Imperial County, Riverside County, and San Diego County residents, some of which are currently among the poorest in the country. Investment in the Salton Sea and its local residents should absolutely be seen as worthwhile to the State of California in order to promote future economic growth in the energy, tourism, and real estate sectors.

In the hope of the State of California implementing a complete, feasible restoration plan within the next 15 years, IID has proposed a plan divided into three phases extending through 2030, with short-term, mid-term, and long-term directives. The vision for the Salton Sea’s future is similar to previously proposed restoration plans. However, the SSRREI provides various ways to begin restoration without conflicting with other proposed plans that already exist or are under development.  IID emphasizes that this plan is developed for long-term success, but stresses that the State must take immediate action in order to protect the Sea and the surrounding area.

The public opinion of the Salton Sea has undergone multiple transformations in the last 120 years. From a benign resource as a salt flat, to a (seemingly) temporary byproduct of the Great Diversion of 1905, to an oasitic escape in the middle of the Southern California desert, to an abandoned reminder of yesteryear and a bird watcher’s paradise, to its current status of ticking time bomb. The IID and Imperial County’s proposal for restoring the Sea gives it the best chance to return to a place of public affection; a place where families can go camping and fishing, a place that can be admired for its truly unique ecosystem and the habitats it provides for dozens of beautiful bird species, and a shining example of a natural landscape that can be preserved while also benefitting its community with its resources. If action is not taken quickly, the Salton Sea’s next and final perception will be that of an avoidable catastrophe that left billions of dollars of damages and countless human lives in its wake.