Salton Sea preservation gets a hand from President Obama

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California's largest lake, the Salton Sea, is in trouble. Southeast of Palm Springs, the manmade lake — manmade by an engineering accident about a hundred years ago — has become an ecological disaster.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a new effort to help fix it.

"In partnership with California, we're going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late, and that's going to help a lot of folks all across the West," Obama said.

As part of Obama's visit to Lake Tahoe, the administration announced its plans to partner with the state of California to “support implementation of the state’s Salton Sea Task Force Agency Action plan, boost the region’s climate resilience through innovative conservation approaches, spur economic growth by developing new clean energy resources, improve public health, and provide a path forward for the [Salton] Sea.”

Under the plan, the federal government would:

  • Establish a partnership between the state of California and the Department of the Interior to improve coordination on issues affecting the Salton Sea. The agreement is intended to accelerate state and federal actions “addressing the natural resources and regional interests associated with the Salton Sea,” including long-term drought on the Colorado River and environmental conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Each of these critical interconnected areas require a joint state and federal response to ensure success.”
  • Raise $10 million through the Water Funder Initiative. The initiative — a collaboration of leading philanthropic foundations including the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation — announced a goal of providing $10 million over five years to support a plan that would “protect public health and the environment, enhance drought resilience, and promote renewable energy and restoration at the Salton Sea.” The funding could go to providing loan guarantees, raising popular and private-sector support, and setting up economic diversification programs and other initiatives that benefit wildlife habitats and local communities.
  • Collaborate on developing renewable energy sources for the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea area. The Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program is seeking input from industry on how to develop production of energy from geothermal sources in the Salton Sea area that would generate power that would be purchased by the federal government. “The Imperial Valley is home to world-class renewable energy resources, with an existing capacity of over 6,000 megawatts of renewables, and an estimated 1,200 megawatts of additional geothermal resources that are currently untapped.” In addition, the Department of the Interior will soon complete its Desert Renewable Energy Conservation plan that includes provisions to help facilitate permitting of renewable energy and transmission projects in the Imperial Valley.
  • Convene a forum on geothermal energy in October led by the Department of Energy. The forum will invite geothermal experts from government, industry and research “to lay out solutions for new geothermal development while remaining consistent with critical federal and state conservation planning efforts at the Salton Sea.”
  • Invest $29 million in geothermal research. The funding, made available through the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), would support research at Sandia National Laboratories in Nevada and at the University of Utah to “help improve the technical and economic feasibility of geothermal energy nationwide, including in the Salton Sea area, which features vast geothermal energy potential.”
  • Finalize partnership agreements between the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Sierra Valley Conservation Planning Program and the Salton Sea Authority. The partnerships “will help spur critical air, water, and wildlife habitat conservation planning for the Sierra Valley as well as the Salton Sea.” Federal funding would total more than $17 million, with the other partners proposing to contribute another $60 million.

The California Natural Resources Agency is spearheading California's preservation efforts. The agency's Joaquin Esquivel says that the sea is a vital part of the Pacific Flyway, which is one of the major paths migratory birds take across North America.

"Millions of birds every year use the Salton Sea, and with 90 percent of California's wetlands having been developed over, it's actually a critical point on the Pacific Flyway," Esquivel told KPCC.

There are also endangered species there, Esquivel said. While the sea is somewhat artificial, Esquivel says that depends on the timeframe you look at.

"A body of water has inhabited that space every few hundred years or so," Esquivel said.

Water has diverted into the area every few hundred years, creating a freshwater body. The reason why agriculture is profitable and able to be done in the Imperial Valley is the sediment left behind by water flowing into the area over the years.

Now the Salton Sea faces diminished water and could start drying up even faster than it already has been. The Imperial Irrigation District is going to stop putting as much water into the sea, beginning in 2018.

Bringing the state in line and using agricultural water for urban use instead means less water for the sea, Esquivel said. It's been under some constraints since about 2003, but the state also said at the time that it would help slow the shrinking of the sea. Critics say the state hasn't done enough, pushing the sea to a crisis point.

The Salton Sea has left behind what's known as "playa," which is the dried-up land around it that used to be underwater. It's also a terminal lake, which means its water doesn't go on to flow into the ocean.

The salts and other nutrients left behind are at the bottom of the lake now, and that has created a terrible smell around the sea thanks to all of the sulfur. It created a smell in the area several years ago known as "the big stink."

California Gov. Jerry Brown put together a Salton Sea task force about a year ago which found that acreage targets should be set to account for the exposed playa.

"When we talk about the sea, and the reduced amount of water that we get, it's still going to receive around 700,000 acre feet a year of water, which is a significant amount of water," Esquivel said.

Esquivel explained the future of the sea.

"In about 10, 15 years, the sea will have receded a bit, and on that exposed playa, what you'll have are rich bio-life habitats, perhaps the siting of other air mitigation projects," Esquivel said.

The Salton Sea is beginning to evolve, so the question is how the sea is managed as that happens, Esquivel said.

"The sea is this sort of artificial thing, but we own it, because we've maintained it this long. And so the question is, how do we collectively get these projects into the ground, and keep the playa down, and preserve the qualities that we all know from the sea and want to continue to develop," Esquivel said.

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