Solutions?

Responding to growing public pressure to restore the Salton Sea, a multiagency government committee was created in 1993 known as the Salton Sea Authority to initiate, aid, and oversee restoration efforts. Its intent, in the words of then executive director, Tom Kirk, was to “direct and coordinate actions related to improvement of water quality, stabilization of water elevation, and enhancement of recreational and economic potential of the Salton Sea.” [1] Congress later enacted the Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998 and, in response, an eighteen-month study was published and presented at a two-day symposium in 2000.

A number of proposed restoration proposals were discussed at the symposium ranging from $400 million to $1 billion to construct and operate over a thirty-year period. These included the creation of dike impoundments, evaporation towers, solar evaporation ponds, desalinization plants; the export of the sea's hypersalinized water to remote locations, including Mexico’s Laguna Salada and several schemes involving the piping in of fresh or ocean water to dilute the salty waters of the sea. A no-action proposal was also presented along with general environmental enhancement programs such as cleaning up the shoreline and harvesting fish to reduce nutrient loads.

One of the more interesting proposals was submitted by Metcalf and Eddy, an engineering firm based in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Its proposal called for the construction of two canals, flowing in opposite directions, bringing water into the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California and channeling it out into Mexico’s Laguna Salada. [2] Apparently lacking in essential research, the initial proposal suggested that the intake canal originate in the internationally protected Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. The projected cost for two 165-mile-long canals was $3.3 billion, with $300 million allotted to the construction of the canals on the American side and those on the Mexican side considerably less. [3] The proposal conveniently left out the cost to construct a proposed desalinization plant. The main canal was designed to be large enough for a ship to sail in just south of the U.S. border, providing transport of materials and manufactured goods to and from the Mexicali maquiladoras (transnational manufacturing plants). Also included were the construction of several islands within the sea to be used for resort developments, with golf courses, high-end vacation homes, and tourist attractions.

Several proposals outlined in the study were selected by the Salton Sea Authority for pilot projects. One of these pilot projects, the Enhanced Evaporation System operated by the Bureau of Reclamation at the former Salton Sea Test Base during 2001, consisted of a series of portable blowers that vaporized seawater, leaving salt formations that could be later removed. Another involved the use of solar evaporation ponds. Both projects operated for little over a year but were eventually discontinued do to complications arising from the proposed regional water transfer.

In an effort to counteract reduced agricultural inflows resulting from the projected water transfer another series of restoration projects were proposed in 2002. Several proposals, including ones submitted by U.S. Filter and the Pacific Institute, provided the basis for the North Lake Plan, which suggested dividing the sea into two separate bodies of water through the construction of a rock-filled causeway that would create “a marine lake environment in the north basin while maintaining and creating extensive shallow water areas in the south for waterbirds and other wildlife.” [4] The Salton Sea Authority board of directors unanimously endorsed the North Lake Plan in April 2004, budgeted at $750 million but California state legislature failed to pass the initiative.

Since the original 2005 publication of Greetings from the Salton: Folly and Intervention in Southern California Landscape 1905-2005 the dilemma of how to revitalize the Salton Sea ecosystem and the wildlife it supports remains unsolved. Over the past years, reports and studies have been conducted by regional, state, and federal agencies exploring a wide range of revitalization and restoration plans. In accordance with California state legislation, a preferred alternative was agreed upon and submitted to the legislature in spring 2007. A vast and diverse group of non-governmental agencies including the Pacific Institute, Sierra Club Audubon California, as well as a variety of human health and environmental justice groups contributed during the commenting process of the preferred alternative for restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and its dependent wildlife.

As outlined by a 2008 legislative report titled, “Restoring the Salton Sea,” the preferred alternative proposes “a smaller but more manageable Salton Sea” costing $8.9 billion over a span of twenty-five years. The sea would be reduced from its current size by sixty percent to around 147 square miles from its current 365 square mile profile. “Fifty-two miles of barrier and perimeter dikes would be erected along with earthen berms to corral the water into a horseshoe shape along northern shoreline of the sea from San Felipe Creek on the west shore to Bombay Beach on the east shore. The central portion of the sea would be allowed to almost completely evaporate and would serve as a brine sink, while the southern portion of the sea would be constructed into a saline habitat complex.” [5]  To date the California legislature has not acted, nor set-aside funding for the proposed alternative plan.

NOTES:

[1] U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources, testimony by Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, to the Subcommittee on Water and Power, hearing on HR 5123 (Hunter), July 25, 2002.
[2] The Laguna Salada is an enclosed basin, part of the Colorado River delta, located east of the municipality of Mexicali in Baja California. The Salton Trough and the Laguna Salada are both extensions of the larger hydrology of the Colorado River system.
[3] Lukas Velush, “Company proposes $3.3 billion canal plan,” Desert Sun Online,  January 10, 2000.
[4] Salton Sea Authority, Salton Sea Integrated Water Management Plan (July 2003).
[5] Elizabeth G. Hill, “Restoring the Salton Sea,” Legislative Analyst’s Office, January 28, 2008.