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A healthier Salton Sea, $2.5 billion

Dam could create smaller, healthy sea

$2.3 billion cost: The plan would save habitats and produce economic benefits, supporters say.

Riverside Press Enterprise - 5/25/03

By Bettye Wells Miller, staff writer


After five years and $20 million spent studying the Salton Sea, federal officials and supporters of the desert lake may have found common ground on a plan to save it.

A healthier but smaller Salton Sea could emerge under a proposal that is gaining momentum, despite the estimated $2.3 billion cost.

Backers say the plan to create an ocean-like lake and terraced ponds offers the best hope for restoring the sea, a major stopover for millions of migratory birds. It also could boost economic development along the north shore and make drinking water available for a million families.

"I would like to save the whole sea," said Norm Niver, a 30-year resident of Salton City on the sea's southwestern shore. "But I'm a realist. This is wonderful as an option."

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, is 25 percent saltier than the ocean and getting saltier. Formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed a canal, it now is sustained by farm runoff. The lake is home to more than 400 species of birds and fish, some of which are threatened or endangered.

Saving the sea, which is plagued not only by excess salt but by bird and fish die-offs, has been the focus of much debate. The sea's future figured prominently last year in the collapse of a deal to transfer billions of gallons of water from Imperial Valley farmers to urban residents. The deal was necessary to continue California's access to surplus Colorado River water but faltered because of, among other things, concern that curtailing irrigation would contribute to the sea's slow demise.

"This has the potential to save part of the sea and allow the water transfers to move forward," said Andy Horne, president of the Salton Sea Authority and a member of the Imperial Irrigation District board of directors.

"The realization that it's difficult, if not impossible, to finalize water transfers and save the entire sea has encouraged people to give this a hard look," he said.

The plan endorsed by the Salton Sea Authority in April builds on a previous proposal by U.S. Filter. In the new plan, a dam would be built at the sea's midpoint to create an ocean-like lake in the north basin. An outlet would allow salty water to leave the closed lake and be replaced with fresher farm runoff, said Tom Kirk, executive director of the joint-powers authority that manages the sea.

A desalination plant would treat up to 500,000 acre-feet of farm runoff annually before it reaches the sea. The desalted water would be sold back to Imperial Valley farmers, freeing Colorado River water for urban users.

The southern half of the current lake would become terraced ponds, creating extensive shallow-water habitat. Open space interspersed among the ponds would be covered with a salt cap to reduce dust. The changes would produce a net gain of 15,000 acres of bird habitat, said Ken Althiser, senior geographic information systems analyst for the Redlands Institute, which is part of the Salton Sea Database Program at the University of Redlands.

"I think we have a chance to meet all the needs of the area," he said. "We can maintain bird resources, fish, recreation values and get water out of it."

The plan anticipates the transfer of billions of gallons of water from Imperial Valley farms to urban users, Kirk said. "We're trying to reuse water as much as possible because we're going to have less of it."

The sale of desalted water could generate half of the money needed to fund the project, he said. Between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion would be required from the state and federal governments, he said.

State Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden, has introduced legislation that would put a $5 billion water bond, including $1 billion for Salton Sea, on the ballot next year.

The biggest question mark, Kirk said, is whether the lake floor can support a large dike or dam. Bedrock is about 5,000 feet below. There also are questions about the dam's ability to survive earthquakes. Engineering bids will be sought soon.

The dam can be built, said Chris Amrhein, professor of soil and water chemistry at UC Riverside and an adviser to the Salton Sea Authority. The biggest hurdle will be cost, he said.

Communities along the sea's shores would also benefit from the plan, Amrhein said.

"You would be making high-quality, waterfront real estate" along the north shore, he said.

"This is the political dream, that this could be more than a stopping-over place for waterfowl. This proposal essentially allows that. It could become quite nice." #


Thirsty for water dollars

Salton Sea restoration plan faces tough competition for uncertain pool of money

Riverside Press Enterprise - 5/25/03

By Bettye Wells Miller, staff writer

At day's end, the blazing sun slips behind the Santa Rosa Mountains and bathes the hills in a palette of pastels. White pelicans on the shore turn shades of pink.

It's the best time of day at the Salton Sea, says Norm Niver, who has loved the salty lake since he moved there 30 years ago.

The lake's future is uncertain, however, caught between farmers and city-dwellers fighting over the water that feeds it, and politicians trying to decide whether the sea is worth saving, and at what cost.

The Salton Sea Authority, which oversees the lake, has spent $20 million over five years studying the sea and evaluating options. Last month, the agency endorsed a $2.3 billion plan to save half the lake, turn the rest into wetlands, and provide drinking water for up to 4 million Southern Californians.

The transformation will need state and federal funding.

That puts Niver's cherished sea in competition with the $8.5 billion California Federal Bay-Delta Project -- CalFed -- touted as the solution to California's long-term water needs and to restoring a devastated ecosystem in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Those who study California's water issues worry there won't be enough federal money to go around.

"It's almost a guarantee there's a competition for dollars," said Mike Spear, deputy secretary of the California Resources Agency. The state has been disappointed at how little of CalFed the federal government has funded, he added.

The government agreed to pay about $2.3 billion but has contributed less than $300 million, according to a state analysis. In that climate, some officials wonder how the Salton Sea will fare. It's years behind CalFed in planning, isn't nearly as vital to the state's water supply, and lies in a distant and barren corner of California.

It's been tough to get support from the U.S. Department of Interior for any California water project, said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"When it comes to the federal government, I think it is clear that the Salton Sea and Bay-Delta are competing over crumbs," he said.

Time is not on the side of the Salton Sea.

Rising salinity levels threaten the survival of fish and millions of migratory birds. Fish and bird die-offs are legendary.

The sea is one of the largest stopovers in North America for migratory water birds and is home to several endangered species, said Daniel Cooper, director of bird conservation for Audubon California.

In a state that has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands, the sea and its surrounding habitat become more vital for migratory birds "hardwired" by thousands of years of habit to stop there, he said.

"They've evolved with these wetlands," Cooper said.

A deal to transfer billions of gallons of Colorado River water from Imperial Valley farmers to residents in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley would greatly reduce agricultural runoff, the lifeblood of the sea.

The transfer is part of a plan to reduce the state's use of river water. California has taken more than its share for years because other states have not needed all of theirs. Rapid growth in those states and the worst drought in history along the river mean that California must give up the surplus.

But the Imperial Irrigation District balked at the transfer deal in December, in part because of liability concerns over damage to the sea. In response, the Bush administration cut off California's access to extra river water that would serve about 5 million people.

Rep. Mary Bono, the sea's most vocal advocate in Congress, said she is frustrated that the Interior Department and Congress haven't been more supportive of the Salton Sea and California's water needs.

"It's ironic for a state that's such an important force in driving our (national) economy that we have to fight so hard," Bono, R-Palm Springs, said in a telephone interview.

Without a restoration plan, the sea will shrink, killing fish and birds and exposing miles of dry lakebed in an area notorious for blasting windstorms, Bono said. Air quality in the Coachella and Imperial valleys would be at risk.

"In 15 or 20 years, there will be an ecological disaster and a public health disaster," said Michael Cohen, senior associate of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland.

Cohen said he is worried that the sea will be ignored.

In 1998, Congress gave the Interior Department until 2000 to devise plans to save the Salton Sea. But no concrete plan exists.

"The federal government was supposed to have stepped up to the plate three years ago," Cohen said. "California politically is not a major incentive for the current administration."

Julia Levin, state policy director for Audubon California, said California loses out on some funding because of limits on what each state can receive, regardless of population.

Even so, she said, "it appears that the Bush administratiaon is thumbing its nose at California."

A majority of California's 35 million residents live in the semi-arid south, depending on water from the northern half of the state and the Colorado River.

Decades of overpumping and pollution in the scenic Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta depleted fisheries, contaminated drinking water and jeopardized water supplies, environmentalists and policy-makers say.

"It's a damaged system," said Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Southern California relies on the Bay-Delta for a significant amount of water. As it becomes less healthy, it becomes a less-reliable water supply."

About one-third of the Inland area's water comes from the Bay-Delta, about one-third from the Colorado River and about one-third from local groundwater.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who supports both CalFed and the Salton Sea, said the loss of surplus Colorado River water in January makes solving California's water issues essential.

"As we become less dependent on the Colorado River, we become more dependent on Northern California," Calvert said. "CalFed is critical for California."

So far, it's the state that has stepped up to the plate.

CalFed officials said the state has contributed $1.218 billion to the CalFed project over the past three years, mostly from bond measures, while the federal government, despite its agreement to contribute $2.3 billion, has spent about $175 million during that period.

In a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced a new effort to help Western states address water needs. But she did not explain why CalFed has received so little of the promised federal funding.

"They're willing to give a little technical assistance and rhetorical support for water reform in the West," said Thomas Graff, an attorney for Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group. "Money? Forget it."

California's federal delegation is trying to pry money out of Washington.

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced a bill on Wednesday authorizing $880 million in fiscal years 2004-2007 to protect and restore the Bay-Delta area.

Funding CalFed is critical for a state that is projected to grow to 50 million residents in 20 years but depends on a water-delivery system built when California had 16 million residents, Feinstein said in a statement. "If there is one lesson to learn from California's damaging energy crisis, it is that the time to address a crisis is not while it is happening, but beforehand."

Californians could be asked to reach into their pockets to help the Salton Sea. At least one bond measure to fund more California water projects is likely to appear on a ballot next year.

Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden, is pushing a measure that would allocate $1 billion for the Salton Sea as a way to remove a major hurdle in reaching agreement on the Colorado River deal. It also would allocate $500 million for CalFed and $3.5 billion for various local and regional projects. An $8 billion measure by Sen. Joe Canciamilla, D-Martinez, would fund CalFed and other projects.

Still, federal aid is essential for those projects, said Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

"The federal government has a responsibility and role to play in CalFed and the Salton Sea," he said. "It's not a fair or wise choice to tell California, 'You're going to get so much federal money. You choose CalFed or the Salton Sea.' . . . We are a huge part of the economic engine of this country."

As for funding hopes for the Salton Sea, the sale of water from a proposed desalination plant could help pay for the restoration, said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.

"If it helps pay for itself and is providing water for the coast," Kirk said, "I think it has a better chance for people in Sacramento and D.C. to pay attention." #

An illustration for this article is at: http://www.pe.com/imagesdaily/2003/05-25/graphic-bigsalton.html





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