Public Workshops shed light on State’s Salton Sea Management Program

Vivien L. Maisonneuve of the Department of Water Resources discusses the State’s Salton Sea Management Program ten-year phase one projects with residents in Brawley on June 22, 2017.

On Wednesday, June 22, the Del Rio Community Center in Brawley was the site of one in a series of public workshops organized by the State to highlight the implementation of the 10-Year Phase I Plan of the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP). The current slate of workshops represents a second-round of community meetings during which the State is rolling out its restoration concept for the Salton Sea—a phased approach meant to address air quality and provide for habitat. The first round of workshops occurred last summer and fall and at that time the focus was on discussing in more general terms the goals and objectives of the SSMP. Now the State has further developed its initial 10-year program with an estimated price tag of $380 million.

If you missed the presentation in Brawley, more are planned for the Valley. On June 28, a presentation will take place at the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach from 2 to 4 p.m. and on June 29, another workshop will be held in the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) auditorium in El Centro from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. These workshops represent an effort by the State to reach out to the community not just to present a plan for restoration—now touted as a management program—but also to hear ideas from the community that can be folded into the plan. The SSMP is an adaptive management program, which means ideas from the community will be considered and can be added.

During the presentation in Brawley, Vivien L. Maisonneuve, a senior environmental specialist with the Department of Water Resources, who is working with California Natural Resources on the ten-year plan, identified the key elements of this phase one period of the SSMP. It relies heavily on projects that already have funding and have gone through design–including the State’s Species Conservation Habitat Project, the federal Red Hill Marina wetlands project (both in the south end of the sea), a wetlands project on the north end on Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe land, a backbone infrastructure project developed by the IID, and a series of air quality projects. Those air quality projects include ground roughening—a proven method already used by some farmers along the Sea; the use of vegetation, which can grow with very little water; and surfactants—a kind of chemical ground cover.

The State’s goal over the first ten years is to address 30,000 acres of exposed playa, recognizing that not all exposed areas will be emissive. The focus is to target the implementation of projects to make the most of available funds. The main objective for the State is to build habitat that serves the needs of wildlife while at the same time addressing air quality. The State’s approach also includes the use of air quality projects, like those mentioned above that require little or no water.

A key concern on the minds of those who attended the Brawley presentation was funding. To date, the State has $80 million in Proposition 1 funding for the Sea, $10 million from philanthropic groups, potential $30 million in federal Water Resources Development Act funding, potential funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and $30 million in a State Salton Sea Restoration Fund provided by the water agencies that are part of a Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) Joint Powers Authority—the San Diego County Water Authority, IID and the Coachella Valley Water District. The QSA is a set of agreements meant to reduce California’s use of the Colorado River down to its historic 4.4 million acre-feet allotment, and features water transfers built on conservation.

Along with the funding identified above, there is existing State legislation that would see additional funding, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, for the Salton Sea.

Even with those funding sources, there still is a need for additional dollars. State officials working on the SSMP acknowledge that, and the effort to seek funding will continue. However, the existing funds allow projects to get underway and by the end of this year, construction should be moving forward in earnest, State officials say.

During the presentation in Brawley, frustration was expressed by those in attendance about a lack of progress. Such frustration is certainly warranted. When in 2007, the State released a restoration plan costing $9 billion without a funding mechanism, the State’s efforts at the Sea ground to a halt. Now, however, there is movement on the part of the State toward a restoration program that is not perfect—that will have to be adaptive—that will need to continuously be monitored—but it is a step forward.

And at the same time the QSA Joint Powers Authority is continuing to work on environmental mitigation at the Sea, just as it has since 2003. For the last fifteen years the JPA has funded approximately 800,000 acre-feet of mitigation water to the Sea, placement of air quality monitoring stations around the Sea, and pilot air quality projects.

In fact, today there are around 800 acres of air quality projects on exposed playa and more under development. And come the end of 2017, when mitigation flows to the Sea end (there will still be some 750,000 acre-feet per year of water flowing to the Sea even after that), the air quality projects will expand with the goal of ensuring the QSA does not impact air quality in the region.

As noted earlier, there is nothing perfect about the SSMP. The first ten years represent part of a long-term goal to create a smaller but sustainable sea that addresses air quality, maintains habitat and perhaps enables the Sea to continue to serve as a recreational resource. But the State needs to hear from residents. Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary for California Natural Resources in charge of the SSMP, has proven himself to be a State official willing to listen to the concerns of the community.