Last month, Salton Sea Sense had the opportunity to host and hear from Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate at the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute aims to provide science-based leadership and outreach to inform public water policy, and Cohen has been working specifically on the Salton Sea since 1998. He recently published an excellent Institute blog post on the current “fortunes and prospects” at the Sea, which is available here.

In his talk at UC Riverside, Cohen outlined some of the challenges that continue to face the Salton Sea. One of those challenges is the perception of Sea as an “artificial” ecosystem, which we have previously blogged about. Cohen pointed out that the whole of the State of California’s water is part of a managed system that includes man-made aqueducts, reservoirs and pumps. The Salton Sea is an essential part of this system as one of the last remaining aquatic habitat options in the southwestern United States for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

cawater
California’s constructed water system that delivers water throughout the state that includes the State Water Project (blue), the Central Valley Project (red), as well as other federal, state, and private infrastructure projects.

California’s constructed water system that delivers water throughout the State that includes the State Water Project (blue), the Central Valley Project (red), as well as other federal, state, and private infrastructure projects.

Another challenge is the imbalanced Colorado River water system, in which more water is allocated than is readily available. As the drought proliferates and California policymakers look to address water scarcity, we look to the largest consumer: Imperial Irrigation District, which is entitled to 3.1 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually. These reallocations of water can be great for cities like San Diego that are looking to create more sustainable and diverse water supplies, but not so great for the fate of the Salton Sea and its human and avian residents.

COriverwater
Colorado River allocation by state, in acre-feet. Allocations were divded based on existing demands in 1922, as well as project growth at the time. Source: Glen Canyon Dam Wiki

Finally, there is the challenge of inequity at the Sea. The local residents will ultimately bear the cost of inaction in the coming months, while the costs of taking action are borne by the State of California. The State has accepted its responsibility to protect the Salton Sea; however, there remains a desperate need for timely, holistic, cost-effective action that has not been met. The State’s Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP) has set admirable goals for habitat and dust suppression. Now, it is a matter of matching these goals with significant action and necessary funding.

As Cohen put it, the Salton Sea has the potential to be a valuable, sustainable resource over the long-term, though one that will look very different from its current incarnation. Despite the imminent loss of mitigation water and the loss of as much as 40% of the Sea’s historic long-term inflows, there will still be a significant amount of water flowing to the Salton Sea (700,000 acre-feet per year!). Plus, there just isn’t time for years of planning and infrastructure construction to identify and bring in new water sources.  Success at the Salton Sea requires dedicated resources and effective project management, today. The State has the opportunity to prioritize well-constructed habitat and air quality management projects that are a relatively easy solution in the short-term, and have massive public health and ecological value in the long-term.