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Ask anyone who cares about the Salton Sea and surrounding areas what it is they want for the Sea, and you will almost unanimously hear, “restoration,” as part of their response. Everyone will have a different perspective on the definition of that term, but common denominators include: 1) protecting public health by keeping water on the playa, or exposed lakebed, thereby preventing increased fugitive dust, and 2) supporting an ecosystem comprised of plants, fish, and birds.

Podium at the
Podium at the “playa-breaking” ceremony for the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project

Salton Sea advocates all have a new, long overdue reason to celebrate with the beginning of construction for the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project at the southeast portion of the Sea. On Thursday, November 5, 2015, two Salton Sea Sense members, Holly Mayton and Drew Story, attended the “playa breaking” ceremony where local, state, and federal partners broke ground. Under the supervision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this project aims to blend together Alamo River water with existing Salton Sea water, and cover 450 acres of currently exposed playa, thereby creating a saline wetland habitat for birds; addressing those two common denominators previously mentioned[1].

Previously, it was thought that wetlands supplied by only agricultural runoff water would be too polluted (by selenium) to support bird habitats. Couple that with the fact that the current Salton Sea water is too salty to support many species of plants and birds, and it was easy to throw up collective hands and demand potable, imported water. Seeing as how this would be an unsustainable solution, the US Geological Survey and US Bureau of Reclamation set out to find a solution that would be the solution. Mixing these two individually unsuitable water supplies to a salinity target of 20 parts per thousand (less than half of the current Sea salinity) and reducing the concentration of selenium has converted them into a combined water supply suitable for habitat restoration and dust abatement. With a proposed timeline of about 18 months, this project is also serving as a learning exercise for future restoration efforts, and will hopefully be the catalyst the Sea needs for continued improvements.

Attendees of the
Attendees of the “playa-breaking” stand on dry lakebed that will contain a saline wetland within 18 months.

Consistent with the multi-faceted nature of the Salton Sea, this project also allows for future development of the geothermal potential available in the area. Working together with CalEnergy, the owner of all but one of the geothermal plants in the region, Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County ensured the development of clean energy was not hindered by this all too important restoration project.

Elected officials from the state and federal government voiced their support, with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and CA State Senator Ben Hueso speaking at the event. US Senator, Dr. Raul Ruiz spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. to commemorate the combined efforts leading to this promising ceremony.

With many interests at the table of the Salton Sea, it is refreshing and encouraging to see the potential progress that can be made when stakeholders work together. It is our hope that the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project is remembered for its collaborative nature and its ability to accomplish common goals.

[1] http://water.ca.gov/spotlight/docs/FINAL%20Red%20HIll%20Release.pdf

Written by Drew Story