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.
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…”
Releases from Hoover Dam may be reduced, shrinking the amount of water flowing to Arizona, California. By Ian James – enewspaper
With the nation’s two largest reservoirs continuing to decline, federal officials announced plans Friday to revise their current rules for dealing with Colorado River shortages and pursue a new agreement to achieve larger reductions in water use throughout the Southwest.
The Biden administration announcement represents a renewed push to scale back water use along a river that has shrunk significantly in the face of a 23-year megadrought worsened by global warming.
With water levels dropping at Lake Powell, the Interior Department said operators of Glen Canyon Dam may need to release less water, which would affect flows in the Grand Canyon and accelerate the decline of Lake Mead. In order to protect public health and safety and the integrity of the system, the department said releases from Hoover Dam may also need to be reduced — which would shrink the amounts of water flowing to California, Arizona and Mexico.
Federal officials in June called for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River to come up with plans to drastically reduce annual water diversions by about 15% to 25% regionwide. But negotiations among the states grew tense and acrimonious and didn’t produce a deal.
The Interior Department has the authority to step in and unilaterally impose larger cuts. But federal officials appear to be pushing for a consensus on shrinking the water take from the river rather than dictating reductions in ways that could further inflame tensions or lead to legal fights. This approach increases the pressure on the states to come up with a deal in the coming months or face federal intervention.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a news release. “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.”
Water from the Colorado River is used by about 40 million people, flowing to cities, farmlands and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California. The river has long been overallocated. So much water is diverted that the river’s delta in Mexico largely dried up decades ago.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two largest reservoirs, now sit nearly three-fourths empty. Declining water levels are putting the dams’ ability to generate hydropower at risk.
Without major cuts in water use, the latest projections show growing risks of the reservoirs approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream.
The current system for dealing with shortages was established in operating rules dating to 2007, and a 2019 deal laid out a series of additional cutbacks as Lake Mead’s level declines.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation said it will publish a notice to prepare a “supplemental environmental impact statement,” which will include alternatives for revising the 2007 rules. Those rules, called the interim guidelines, are set to expire after 2026, and negotiations on the next round of shortage-sharing rules have yet to begin.
The Interior Department said in this “expedited” review process, officials will consider revising the current rules to “provide additional alternatives and measures needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions.”
The Bureau of Reclamation plans to analyze options including what it calls a consensus-based “framework” agreement that would build on water reductions that the states and tribes have previously agreed to.
Another alternative would be for the Interior secretary to exercise federal authority to change reservoir operations. The Interior Department said this alternative would also “consider how the secretary’s authority could complement a consensus-based alternative that may not sufficiently mitigate current and projected risks.”
The department said the review will also consider the “no action” option of staying with the current rules and agreements. The agency will accept public input through Dec. 20.
Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said these steps are necessary “to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations.”
Touton said these measures will better protect reservoir levels and water supplies while long-term plans are developed to address “the climate-driven realities facing the Colorado River Basin.”
California communities exposed to hazardous dust by a drying lake bed have found themselves at the center of tensions between Arizona and California over how to conserve water along the overtaxed Colorado River.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat facing reelection, wants the federal government to withhold money for environmental cleanup at the Salton Sea until California agrees to use less of its share of the river. He also faulted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for not being clear about when and how it will act if the seven Western states that rely on the river fail to significantly lower their use.
“We are out of time,” Kelly wrote Tuesday in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior. “The longer the Department waits to press for an agreement … the more difficult this crisis will be to solve, leading only to tougher choices and litigation.”
Federal officials in June said the states must dramatically cut usage as key reservoirs risk dropping so low they can’t produce hydropower or supply water users. But the states blew through an August deadline without a plan. Congress has dedicated up to $4 billion in part to pay farmers and cities to use less water, but its impact remains unclear.
Much attention is on California, the largest holder of the river’s water and the last to lose in times of shortage. The state’s users said recently they would cut use up to 9% contingent on federal money and a plan to clean up toxic dust around the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea, California’s most polluted inland lake, has lost a third of its water in the last 25 years. New research has determined a decline in Colorado River flow is the reason for that shrinking.
As the lake dries up, the concentration of salt and chemicals in the remaining water has increased dramatically, causing a mass die-off of fish and birds, including endangered species. The dry lakebed, coated in the salty, toxic water, becomes dust that causes respiratory problems for nearby residents.
“It is an environmental catastrophe,” said Juan S. Acero Triana, UCR hydrologist and lead author of a new study focused on understanding water movement on and below Earth’s surface near the Salton Sea, a research field called hydrology. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, or INFEWS, program.
There have been a variety of hypotheses about why the water levels are steadily declining. Some blame climate change and heat for drying up the lake. Others suspect that agriculture could be to blame. As irrigation systems get more efficient and crops are modified to use less water, it means less water getting into the Salton Sea. However, the researchers say these are not the biggest causes of the sea’s decline.
“There is less water coming from the Colorado River into the Sea, and that is driving the problem,” said Hoori Ajami, UCR hydrologist, study co-author and principal investigator. This finding, and the methods used to obtain it, are now published in the journal Water Resources Research.
The researchers considered all major processes impacting the water balance of an endorheic lake like the Salton Sea, where water flows in but not out to any tributaries. Endorheic lakes worldwide have been shrinking in recent decades at what the researchers call an “alarming” rate due to the combined effects of global warming and diversion of water for agricultural and industrial purposes.
To understand the reasons for the Salton Sea’s decline, the researchers used a hydrologic model that accounted for all processes in the surrounding areas that impact the lake’s water balance, including climate, soil types, land slope, and plant growth.
Geographically the model included data not only about the Sea itself, but also from the surrounding watershed, streams entering the lake, and the land area that drains into those streams.
Data for the model was hard to come by as this is a transboundary basin on the US-Mexico border between California and Baja California Norte, and stakeholders may have been reluctant to share data that could alter previously earned water rights. However, using publicly available data and data mining techniques, UCR researchers were able to simulate long-term water balance dynamics and identify reduced Colorado River flows as the main cause of the Salton Sea shrinking.
“It’s not entirely clear, however, whether the decline in Colorado River water is more due to global warming drying out the river, or reductions in allocation levels to California, or both,” Acero Triana said.
Despite that lingering ambiguity, the researchers say the study should send a message to water management agencies and lawmakers that the Salton Sea watershed should be considered part of the Colorado River basin.
“Usually, the Sea is considered an independent system, and a watershed-centric approach considering surface and groundwater resources is needed to find a solution,” Ajami said. “As the environmental risks of a shrinking Sea mount, all parties must work together to mitigate the danger.”