Remember that time in school when the teacher gave you three months to complete an assignment and you did no work on it until the night before it was due? That’s the position the state of California is in with the Salton Sea.
Only the problem is about 700,000 times worse – that’s the number of people living around the sea, and facing serious threats to their health and economic prosperity. With a critical end-of-the-year deadline approaching, it’s time for the state to finish its plan, commit the funding and get to work.
This has been a classic tale of bureaucratic can-kicking.
In 2003, with cities in Southern California thirsting for water, the state struck a deal to divert a large amount of water from farms to cities. Because this diversion would cause the level of the Salton Sea to drop – generating dust and massive habitat destruction – the agreement required the Imperial Irrigation District to put additional water into the sea for 15 years while the state implemented restoration projects.
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Fifteen years have gone by and the state has done very little. Not a single project to control dust or create habitat at the sea has been built.
Meanwhile, the situation at the sea has deteriorated. When the mitigation water is turned off at the end of this year, huge expanses of lake bed will produce plumes of toxic dust that will further pollute the air breathed by hundreds of thousands of people that live nearby. Tens of thousands of acres of habitat will dry up and disappear and dozens of bird species will be left without a place to eat, rest and survive.
Recently, the state has begun to show some urgency, appointing a director of its Salton Sea program and holding public hearings. In March, the state released a draft management plan that promises to build 25,000 acres of air quality control and habitat projects in the next 10 years, at a cost of $383 million.
Unfortunately, the state has yet to finalize the plan and has only secured approximately $80 million. None of the state’s promises to responsibly manage the sea matter if it fails to secure additional funding now.
As you read this, the Governor’s Office and legislators are putting together a proposed bond to fund parks and water projects statewide. Ensuring that the measure going to voters next year includes $300 million for Salton Sea management would demonstrate a commitment to addressing one of the largest public health and environmental crises in our state’s history.
While our leaders debate dollar amounts, asthma rates are rising in communities around the Salton Sea. Schools fly colored flags to indicate whether kids can safely play outside. Albuterol inhalers are packed into lunch boxes along with sandwiches.
At the same time, bird populations that rely on the Salton Sea for survival have begun crashing in massive numbers. Ecologists report seeing fewer and fewer birds using the sea and say starved birds are washing up dead along the shorelines.
As the Salton Sea recedes over the next decade, impacts from its decay will be felt beyond the Coachella and Imperial valleys, to include nearby Mexicali and its 1 million residents, and extend as far as Los Angeles and San Diego. Failure to address the receding sea will result in tens of billions of dollars in economic damages, including increased health care costs, lost tourism and impacts to the agricultural economy.
California cannot kick the can down the road any longer. It must act now to rapidly fund and build projects to protect air quality and the environment.
Frank Ruiz is Audubon California’s Salton Sea Program director. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.