Bruce Wilcox: A Man Dedicated to the Salton Sea

In this file photo, Bruce Wilcox, at the time Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy under the California Natural Resources Agency, discusses the concept of water importation for long-term Salton Sea restoration planning during a workshop held Oct. 4, 2018, at the Imperial County Board of Supervisors’ chambers.

A man who dedicated much of his career to Salton Sea issues passed away in January. His name was Bruce Wilcox, the former (and first) Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy for the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA)—among other hats he wore related to the Salton Sea during his career. As opposed to reviewing Bruce’s long career and years of work on the Salton Sea, this blog coveys my personal experience and appreciation for a man I had the opportunity to work with and learn from on issues related to the sea. The message I hope readers take away from this blog is that Bruce’s passion for finding a positive future for the sea, his knowledge, and his approachable nature were instrumental in building coalitions of support and setting the course for what became the state’s Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP).

I first got to know Bruce when he worked as an ecologist and environmental manager for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), leading IID’s work on the Salton Sea. With my outreach efforts on behalf of the San Diego County Water Authority, Bruce and I had a chance to communicate quite often on sea issues, in particular related to the mitigation projects implemented by IID and funded by the Quantification Settlement Agreement Joint Powers Authority, of which IID, the Water Authority, Coachella Valley Water District and the state are all members. Not only did I communicate often with Bruce, but he and I jointly presented to various civic clubs, chambers, and other organizations in the Valley during my early years with the Water Authority. I provided a general overview of developments at the sea, and he provided technical information. I remember Bruce addressing various questions from participants and never once did he waiver in responding to even the toughest critics and did so in a way that recognized and acknowledged stakeholder concerns.

Eventually, Bruce’s work on the Salton Sea led former Governor Jerry Brown to appoint him as the first Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy under CNRA in 2015. In essence, he was the first appointed to the monumental task of taking on the state’s new focus on implementing a restoration program. His job, from my viewpoint, was to take an early concept—developing about 12,000 acre-feet of restoration projects in the short term and 25,000 acre-feet in the longer term—and turn those conceptual ideas into shovel ready projects (what would become the Phase 1, 10-Year Plan to address 30,000 acres of exposed playa). Plus, he had to do it at a time when there was a lack of unity among stakeholders on how to move restoration forward. In a very real sense, his primary job was to bring parties together around a focused goal for the sea. While there may be differences of opinions on how successful he was in building that coalition, there is little question on the effort he put into bringing people together to have meaningful dialogue on Salton Sea restoration. I, like many readers of this blog, can remember the early days of the SSMP when Bruce gave countless presentations and led discussions with those in Imperial County, Riverside County, and with state and federal leaders as well. His position required him to meet with parties and bridge differences as much as work on implementing projects.

In 2019, Bruce retired, and the position of Assistant Secretary of Salton Sea Policy passed to Arturo Delgado, who has led the implementation of critical SSMP projects. There definitely is positive movement on projects and new momentum as the state strives to meet annual milestones for addressing restoration. Even as we acknowledge the current progress, there is value in looking back at the work it took to get to this point and the dedication by those who care about the sea, including Bruce. However, Bruce himself would be the first to point to the work of others in advancing projects at the sea, which he did when the Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors honored him on his retirement in 2019. Still, for his contribution, Bruce deserves thanks for giving much of his career to serving the sea and the communities of Imperial and Riverside counties.