$80.5 million in the state budget means a restored Salton Sea

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A chunk of the California state budget that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this week will be used to finally begin restoration of the Salton Sea in Imperial County. The $80.5 million means a green light on wetland construction after countless environmental impact studies were made over the years, Dan Farris, director of operations for the Coachella Valley Water District, told KPCC.

These wetlands, which are set to be established on the south end of the body of water, will provide provide something that hasn’t been there for some time: a habitat for wildlife.

Because it’s a static lake, and the water has nowhere to travel once it's deposited from the Colorado River, the biggest problem is the increasing salt levels — which Farris said have been building since it was formed in 1906.

“Water goes into the lake and the only way water has to leave the lake is by evaporation. When the water evaporates, the salt that is in the water, those salts are left behind, and over the years they accumulate,” he said.

The large amount of salt makes it difficult for any form of wildlife to survive. Even the tilapia fish, which Farris said is one of the few species that have been able to sustain themselves in those conditions, are starting to die off.

The endangered pupfish, native to the region, has been another champion in the Salton Sea — tilapia and other species were imported in the 20th century for recreational fishing. Once construction is complete, the new habitat will allow both types of fish to survive, he said.

Another method of restoration: diking. Semi-shallow bodies of water will be dug next to the lake, although they will still be connected. The water will still evaporate, Farris said, but since they will be separated, they won’t mix with the main portion of the sea — and won’t contain damaging levels of salt.

This should spread water and allow more to flow in, which would greatly aid in covering the exposed lake bed, he said — the dry sand and dirt has been getting swept up and affecting the quality of the air.

“If the Salton Sea were to dry up and nobody did anything about it, the dust in the air would get much worse than it is today,” Farris said.

Similar efforts to regenerate diminishing bodies of water throughout the state haven't previously been successful — there simply wasn’t enough water. The Salton Sea doesn’t have an abundance of it, he said, but there should be enough.

“It’s just not going to look like what we thought 50 years ago,” Farris said.

Workshops are being held in the area to inform the community and get a sense of what they want to see in a restored Salton Sea — but for the time being, the main goal for construction is creating a livable environment for wildlife. Recreational uses will be addressed in the future, Farris said.

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