Local, state officials welcome federal funds for environmental projects
By Ian James
The Biden administration has announced a plan to provide $250 million to accelerate environmental projects around the shrinking Salton Sea, a major commitment intended to help revitalize the lake’s ecosystems and control hazardous dust in a deal that clears the way for California to take less water from the drought-ravaged Colorado River.
Leaders of the Imperial Irrigation District, which uses the single largest share of the Colorado River to supply farms in the Imperial Valley, had called for federal money to support the state’s Salton Sea program as a key condition for participating in water cutbacks. Some of the district’s leaders praised the funding commitment from the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation, calling it a historic step toward addressing the windblown dust and deteriorating habitats that have plagued California’s largest lake.
“This checks the box big time,” said J.B. Hamby, an Imperial Irrigation District board member. “It’s a really big deal, and nothing like this has really ever happened before.”
This year, federal officials demanded large-scale water cutbacks throughout the Southwest to try to prevent the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to dangerously low levels. Four major California water districts have proposed reducing water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year for the next four years, about 9% of the state’s total water allotment.
Government will spend $250 million on cleanup, restoration at the drying lake. By Kathleen Ronayne
SACRAMENTO — The federal government said Monday it will spend $250 million over four years on environmental cleanup and restoration work around a drying Southern California lake that’s fed by the depleted Colorado River.
The future of the Salton Sea — and who is financially responsible for it — has been a key issue in discussions over how to stave off a crisis in the Colorado River. The lake was formed in 1905 when the river overflowed, creating a resort destination that slowly morphed into an environmental disaster as water levels receded, exposing residents to harmful dust and reducing wildlife habitat.
The lake is largely fed by runoff from farms in California’s Imperial Valley, who use Colorado River water to grow many of the nation’s winter vegetables as well as feed crops such as alfalfa. As the farmers reduce their water use, less flows into the lake. California said it would reduce its reliance on the over-tapped river only if the federal government put up money to mitigate the effects of less water flowing into the sea.
“It’s kind of a linchpin for the action we need to see on the Colorado River,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. “Finally we are all in agreement that we can’t leave the Salton Sea on the cutting room floor; we can’t take these conservation actions — these extraordinary measures — at the expense of these residents.”
The deal announced Monday needs approval from the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of Colorado River water. The water entity’s board will take it up Tuesday.
Both the district’s general manager and board member JB Hamby applauded the deal Monday.
“The collaboration happening at the Salton Sea between water agencies and state, federal, and tribal governments is a blueprint for effective cooperation that the Colorado River Basin sorely needs,” Hamby said in a statement.
The $250 million will come out of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which set aside $4 billion to stave off the worst effects of drought across the U.S. West. Most of the money is contingent on the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District making good on their commitments to reduce their own use of river water. Both submitted proposals to cut back their use for payment as part of a new federal program.
The quarter-billion dollars will largely go to bolster and speed up existing state projects designed to lower the negative environmental impact of the drying lake bed.
The state has committed nearly $583 million to projects at the sea, including dust suppression and habitat restoration. One project aims to create wetlands and ponds that will limit dust from blowing into the air while creating safe spaces for fish and birds, according to the state.
The deal comes as the U.S. Interior Department and the seven states that rely on the river — California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — scramble to stave off the worst effects of the ongoing drought and historic overuse of the river. Lakes Powell and Mead, the key reservoirs that store river water and provide hydropower across the West, are only about a quarter full.
After months of failed negotiations over a deal to drastically cut water use, the federal government in October said it would pay farmers and cities to cut back through activities such as leaving fields unplanted or lining canals to prevent water from seeping into the ground. Proposals were due this month. Meanwhile, the Interior Department has taken steps to unilaterally revise guidelines that govern when water shortages are declared, a move that could force states to further cut back.
The Salton Sea, meanwhile, became its own political flash point in October when Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, then up for reelection, urged the federal government to withhold any environmental cleanup money unless California agreed to give up more water. That prompted criticism he was using communities that already suffer from poor air quality as a bargaining chip.
The agreement marks a good step forward, but key details still need to be fleshed out, said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California. He worries that $250 million is not enough to mitigate all of the damage already done at the sea.
“This is a great step, but I think we need a lot more,” he said. “We need to continue discussing water sustainability in the region.”
Broadly, he wants to see a more equitable distribution of the region’s water supplies and hopes the Salton Sea gets a guaranteed minimum amount of water even as overall use declines.
Ronayne writes for the Associated Press.
When an irrigation canal was breached in the early 1900s, the resulting flood created Southern California’s Salton Sea. It was a rare event that quickly created a beneficial presence in the Imperial Valley, as the lake provided recreation opportunities, tamped down dust, and became a stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway. But now, with inflows declining, this hundred-year-old sea is drying up, and that’s having a host of negative consequences for wildlife and air quality in the region. We spoke with Kurt Schwabe—professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center—about some of the biggest issues facing the sea, as well as potential solutions.
What are the big issues in the Salton Sea, and why has it taken so long to take action?
The first problem is that it’s a terminal lake whose inflows are primarily composed of agricultural drainage flows from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) (around 80%) and wastewater from Mexico (around 10%). This set-up leads to an increasingly polluted sea; as this chemical-laden water evaporates, it leaves behind salts and other pollutants such as metals, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The second problem is that the agricultural drainage flows that have contributed to maintaining the sea’s volume for most of the 20th century are considered to be the result of wasteful and unreasonable water use. This legal opinion opened up the doors for water transfers to southern California municipal water agencies from IID, including the large transfers under the Quantitative Settlement Agreement (QSA) of 2003, which helped California meet the federal government’s mandate to reduce its Colorado River allocations to its legally allocated annual amount of 4.4 million acre-feet.
The transfers of water from IID to cities is made possible by land fallowing and improvements in irrigation efficiency; both practices lessen runoff and, consequently, inflows to the sea. As the sea shrinks, winds pick up sediments from the increasingly exposed dry lake bed and spread them into surrounding communities, which are mostly low-income, making asthma and other respiratory diseases worse. The smaller lake is also more polluted and saline, which reduces habitat for fish and birds.
It’s been almost two decades since the state said it would take on liability to address these issues as part of the QSA deal. It’s been underperforming in its short-term responses and wrestling with what would constitute a long-term sustainable solution.
On Sept. 30 the Independent Review Panel set up by California’s Salton Sea Management Program issued its final report. SSMP charged the panel with evaluating proposals to import water to the Salton Sea. In the end, the panel did not endorse any of the 18 proposals.
The panel found that the key issue is not the size of the sea, it’s the salinity, which is nearly twice that of the ocean and getting worse. A smaller sea can achieve the principal objectives of salinity reduction, environmental restoration and regional air quality improvement. First, the state should embark as soon as possible on designing and building a desalination plant at the sea. Second, the state should collaborate with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) on a program to acquire water for dedication to the sea. Finally, the state needs to finance an aggressive program to manage playa dust, expanding on its initial programs.
IID’s farmers would be asked to provide replacement water for the salty brine removed while the sea is being desalinated. As the sea’s water quality improves, the amount of replacement water needed would decline. In the early years, roughly 140,000 acre-feet per year of applied water would be needed, less in rainy years, and declining over time. Without this, the plan could proceed, but the sea would reach a smaller ultimate volume if the brine water isn’t replaced.
IID, Imperial County and its residents have much to gain from implementing the panel’s recommendations. The impacts of air pollution are a shared local burden. Recreational opportunities from a restored sea, from bird watching to fishing, would mostly benefit residents, although the local tourist economy would also grow.
Forty million people living in Southern California are faced with a deadly combination of drought, warming temperatures, a drying Salton Sea and criminally negligent policies. Officials who have the power and the responsibility to protect our water supply refuse to admit that the Colorado River can no longer supply the amount of water that we have become accustomed to. They have chosen to retreat into their corners and squabble about who should make the necessary sacrifices to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell from reaching dead pool where no one will get any water from the river.
California officials, including Imperial Irrigation District (IID) are withholding their cooperation to save the Colorado River, by saying that cutbacks will hurt their efforts to control the dust that comes from the Salton Sea’s dry lakebed. They are demanding federal funding for these efforts as a condition for agreeing to cutbacks in water use. This is an attempt at blackmail based on a lie. The only plans that the Salton Sea Management Plan has to control dust are by furrowing the bone-dry lakebed and spreading hay bales. These plans will not work and are a token effort at best. It is the sale of water by IID to urban areas, beginning in 2003, which has caused the Salton Sea to dry up and created the dust storms that are making people sick.
After Imperial County declared a state of emergency at the Salton Sea, hoping to pressure California Gov. Gavin Newsom to take action, state officials responded with a letter this month promising the state would allocate $220 million toward Salton Sea projects in the upcoming year’s budget.
That sounded like good news. But what the letter didn’t say was that those funds hinge on the passage of a $4.75 billion bond measure that Newsom’s administration hopes will be on the November 2020 ballot. And that measure isn’t even officially on the ballot yet — the state legislature still needs to act.
When Newsom unveiled his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, he emphasized the state’s healthy $18 billion rainy day fund and ability to use its projected $5.6 billion surplus to expand programs like Medicare for undocumented seniors. None of the surplus was allocated to the Salton Sea, despite the state’s commitments.
The $220 million from the proposed “climate resilience bond” would go to fund the Salton Sea Management Program, a 10-year plan that state and local officials agreed to almost three years ago. The plan envisions restoring thousands of acres of habitat for birds and other species while working on other projects to limit contaminated dust blowing from the evaporating sea.
But the initial phase of the plan has faced delays and has yet to start, despite optimism and promises from lawmakers.
Local officials now say they are worried that relying on a new bond measure for more funding will mean the SSMP will face more of bureaucratic delays they’ve been protesting. Imperial Irrigation District Board President Norma Sierra Galindo said she was not even “cautiously optimistic” about the unsecured funds.
“I cannot, as the director and chairman of this board, put all my eggs in one basket and think that, come November, we’re going to be $220 million richer for the Salton Sea,” she said. “What I can hope for is that if this bond measure doesn’t pass, that Governor Newsom will do something else that’s a little more promising and productive for us.”
New River Diversion Structure Under Construction as Part of the Species Conservation Habitat Project
The Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project, spanning the New River at the southern end of the Salton Sea, will create a network of ponds and wetlands to provide important fish and bird habitat while suppressing dust emissions to improve regional air quality as the Salton Sea continues to recede. On schedule for completion in 2023, the 4,100-acre SCH is the first of many projects the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) team will implement as part of the SSMP Phase 1: 10-Year Plan.
The New River diversion structure is a major component of the overall SCH Project. It will allow water diversion into the habitat ponds. The East and West Sluiceways will allow the water coming from the New River to flow north into the Salton Sea. The Labyrinth weir will allow the New River water to rise and a portion of it will flow by gravity to the New River West and East Intake Structures. The mixing occurs between the weir and the sedimentation basins at the mixing basins. Saline water from the Salton Sea is pumped in from the Saline Pump Station located at the north end of the Causeway into the mixing basins. The mixed water (from the New River and from the Salton Sea) will then flow by gravity to the sedimentation basins and then to the habitat ponds. The New River diversion structure is also a flood control structure that will allow for water to go through without compromising the integrity of the project.
During the first phase of construction of the diversion structure, material placement and removal was completed for ground improvement. Then followed by excavation and embankment, installation of sheet piles, and the concrete and rebar installation for the weir structure. The New River Diversion Structure is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2022.
A few weeks ago, SSMP partners from Audubon California published a blog post that narrates their recent experience at the SCH Project site. “We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves counting thousands upon thousands of Black-necked Stilts, Long-billed Curlews, Least and Western Sandpipers…”
Federal officials are warning California and other states that use Colorado River water to sharply reduce diversions or the government will act unilaterally. California would take the biggest hit.
One must wade through a thicket of bureaucratic jargon to find it, but on Friday federal officials issued what appears to be a serious warning to California and other states that use water from the highly stressed Colorado River:
If they cannot agree on sharp reductions in diversions of the Colorado’s water, the feds will impose them unilaterally.
It’s the latest wrinkle in decades of interstate squabbling over the river, which has become more heated as the river’s flows continue to decline and conditions in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, reach the crisis stage.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation wants California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce diversions by at least 2 million acre-feet a year and as much as 4 million, but negotiations have been fruitless. California, which takes the most water from the river, by far, has offered just a 400,000 acre-foot reduction. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
With talks stalemated, the bureau said it will begin planning for unilateral action “to address the serious operational realities facing the system…” due to “the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the (Colorado River) basin.” It would implement cuts by reducing releases from the two reservoirs.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River system and all those who depend on it,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
The Bureau of Reclamation is telling the states “that this is kind of their last opportunity for consensus-building, for voluntary action,” Jaime Garcia, a water fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, told the Los Angeles Times.
“The fundamental issue is, whatever solution people come up with is going to hurt,” Garcia said. “The river is overallocated. It’s drying up. And we have to find a way to sort of spread out the pain evenly.”
Because California is the largest user of Colorado River water, cutbacks — either voluntary or imposed — would have their greatest impact on the state. However, while the Colorado is a major source of water for Southern California’s more than 20 million residents, the region has other sources for municipal users.
Rather, about two-thirds of the Colorado’s water diverted into California goes to farming, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County. The district takes more water from the river, at least 2.5 million acre-feet a year, than Nevada and Arizona combined. Therefore, if there are major cutbacks, as the feds demand, the Imperial Irrigation District would have to give up the most.
Imperial gets the most because it was the first entity to tap the Colorado more than a century ago, thus establishing its senior water rights. The Imperial Dam and All-American Canal allow the Imperial Valley to have a 12-month growing season, making it a major producer of winter produce as well as a source of alfalfa to feed cattle and milk cows.
The Interior Department has $4 billion from the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act to compensate those who would lose water by flow reductions. But the money and the latest warning may not produce agreement among the affected states.
If the Bureau of Reclamation acts unilaterally to reduce diversions, it will likely result in high-stakes litigation that tests Imperial district’s water rights. In a sense what’s happening along the Colorado could be a forerunner of legal showdowns over water rights in other regions of the state, if drought conditions continue.
The Interior Department outlined a path for unilateral cuts last week, upping the pressure on western states. source: Grist.org
In theory, the federal government can unilaterally cut water deliveries from the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which release more than 2 trillion gallons of water to farms and cities across the Southwest each year. In reality, this has never happened: Previous cuts have always been negotiated between the federal government and the seven states that use the river.
Late last week, however, the federal government sent its strongest signal yet that it is willing to single-handedly impose water cuts on the Colorado for the first time in history, as the U.S. West stares down the consequences of a climate-change-fueled megadrought that has parched the river.
The Department of the Interior, the federal agency that manages water in the Colorado River basin, announced on Friday that it would look into changing the rules for how it operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are located in southern Utah and southern Nevada, respectively. This would pave the way for the department to impose sharp cuts on major water users in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico, which receives water pursuant to a 1944 treaty.
In effect, the letter is a formal warning to the river states, telling them that if they fail to make the major cuts necessary to prevent the reservoirs from bottoming out, the feds won’t hesitate to unilaterally cut their water deliveries to do so.
The Interior Department said in its Friday letter that it would conduct an environmental review before changing the rules to impose new cuts on the states. This will give states one more chance to come up with their own voluntary reductions before the government enacts its own. According to John Fleck, a professor of water policy at the University of New Mexico, the upshot of all this is that unprecedented water reductions are all but guaranteed next year.
“Whether those cuts are imposed by a government action, or voluntary action by the states, or the fact that the reservoirs are fucking empty, they will happen,” he told Grist.
The new review comes after months of tense negotiations between the federal government and the seven basin states: California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. Earlier this year, as water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead fell to historic lows, officials at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation ordered states to reduce their water consumption. The Bureau wanted a total reduction of between 2 and 4 million acre-feet — roughly a third of all water usage on the river.