U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Funds Critical Community-Based Project at the Salton Sea

A file photo of the Salton Sea taken from a hilltop overlooking the sea at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge.

The story of the Salton Sea is complex, often dominated by the understandable concerns that restoration has been slow to move forward, and that exposed playa represents a threat to surrounding communities. While such concerns should not be minimized, there are also the positives worth telling when it comes to the sea. One of those positive aspects of the sea’s story came recently with the announcement that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would be awarding $1 million for a restoration project in Desert Shores—a community on the southern shore of the state’s largest inland lake.

The $1 million is a renewed sign of federal commitment to the Salton Sea, and one more indication that that both the state and federal governments are recognizing the importance of the sea to the Colorado River system and the necessity to move forward with restoration efforts that both protect human health and preserve the environment.

In this case, according to a press release from the state’s Salton Sea Management Program, the funding will help initiate the Desert Shores Channel Restoration Project, which covers 30 acres and includes the water channels that once connected the Desert Shores Marina and the Salton Sea. The release states, “The channels are losing water as the water elevation continues to recede. The project aims to meet the goals of habitat restoration and dust suppression by constructing a berm across the former boat channel and refilling the channels with water that will reduce dust and improve salinity, providing habitat for fish and supporting fish-eating birds. In addition, habitat and dust suppression benefits are anticipated through revegetation.”

The release further states that “over the next few months, a scope of work and refined budget will be developed. Next, an agreement will be formalized, which is expected later this fall. Concurrently, Imperial County will lead efforts to complete compliance under the California Environmental Quality Act and obtain permits. In addition, the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) – led by the California Natural Resources Agency – will analyze and document the project’s public benefits as part of the federal environmental assessment process underway for the SSMP Phase I: 10-Year Plan. Work on the Desert Shores Project is expected to start in 2022, upon completing the environmental compliance and permitting process.”

Not only does the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation deserve credit for the funding support, but locally Imperial County deserves credit for the leadership role it has shown, along with the California Natural Resources Agency, in launching this community-based project. That kind of leadership, those kinds of partnerships and the funding support to match are all signs that there is a positive story to tell about the Salton Sea.

It is a story that also includes the ongoing efforts of the Air Quality Mitigation Program led by the Imperial Irrigation District together with IID’s partners in the Quantification Settlement Agreement Joint Powers Authority, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Coachella Valley Water District and the state. That story of commitment to the sea also includes the efforts of the Salton Sea Authority, the work of the Audubon Society, all locally based environmental justice organizations, tribal leaders and all stakeholders who rally and work for the sea.

Again, none of this is meant to offset the very real concerns that much more needs to be done, and more federal and state funding is needed to continue to move restoration projects further. However, there are clear signs that stakeholders locally, regionally, at the state and federal levels care and want to see a positive future for the sea, the surrounding communities, the environment and the fish and bird life that rely on the sea. We may not always agree how to get there, but all remain engaged. And that is a story that should not be overlooked even as we all must remain vigilant to ensure the efforts moving forward do not slow or veer from the increasingly positive course now set.