In 2007, Senator Barbara Boxer, along with other sponsors, pushed to pass the Water Resources Development Act into law, overriding a presidential veto. In addition to other projects across the country, the bill laid out several steps for designing and implementing a series of pilot projects to investigate ways of avoiding and mitigating the possible impacts of the drying Salton Sea. First, pilot projects would be chosen based on their feasibility as described in the Department of Water Resources’ funding plan. Then, appropriate pilot projects—if approved by the state and the Salton Sea Authority—would be implemented with the state paying 35% of the cost and federal funding supplying the rest. The bill concludes with a federal spending authorization: $30,000,000, intended for the support of at least six separate pilot projects.

However, “authorization” is a bit of a misleading term; the $30 million doesn’t refer to any actual funding. Instead, this bill makes it legal for the federal government to spend that amount of money—if it is able to find a funding source. Unfortunately, this act lacked an “appropriation,” or an actual commitment of funds. Based on this lack of funding, the Army Corps of Engineers has designated any work on Salton Sea restoration to be “lower priority”; no work can be done until funding is obtained. This issue with the bill was the main focus of the President’s veto; “this authorization bill makes promises to local communities that the Congress does not have a track record of keeping.”

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The Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) project, shown here in the yellow outline, is one example of a Salton Sea remediation proposal that requires permitting by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps of Engineers has currently received only a fraction of this authorized funding; in 2015, the President’s budget for the Army Corps’ Civil Works program included only $200,000 for the Salton Sea. Senator Boxer specifically drew attention to this request, noting that this represents the first appropriation of funding for the Sea in the seven years since the original act passed. In addition, the lack of funds is not being offset by other federal bodies: as of its most recently released budget justification, the Bureau of Reclamation provides only $300,000 in annual federal funding for the Salton Sea.

For fiscal year 2017, however, some progress may be made towards providing a meaningful portion of this promised funding to the Salton Sea. Several news sites have reported that the most recent proposed presidential budget requests greater than a tenfold increase in funding for restoration research at the Salton Sea, to $3 million for the year. However, the public budget justification for the Bureau of Reclamation still lists the fiscal year 2017 request as $300,000.

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Map of local, state, and federal projects at the Salton Sea. Click here to expand.

While the State of California is the lead responsible party for the Salton Sea’s future, the Sea is naturally a part of the federally managed Colorado River basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a key federal stakeholder at the Sea, and it is essential that they receive and appropriate the necessary monetary support to contribute to mitigation strategies in the coming years. Other federal involvement comes from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Salton Sea office, which aims to provide science leadership and oversight in restoration projects at the Sea.

Be sure to follow the 2016 Water Resources Development Act, which is currently under consideration by the Senate and would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin partnering with local governments and agencies on prioritized Salton Sea projects. Unfortunately, Senator Boxer won’t be running for re-election this Fall, so the Salton Sea (and other environmental protection needs) will be losing a fierce advocate in Washington, D.C. Enhancing the limited federal involvement in the Salton Sea requires identifying more allies (like Boxer) and communicating with the broader public to build nation-wide knowledge and support.

Written by Katherine Muller
Revised by Holly Mayton