California Forum

To solve the West’s water problems, California needs to solve the Salton Sea

As Imperial farmers conserve water, agricultural runoff to the Salton Sea is reduced. Evaporation shrinks the sea, exposing dry lakeshore and toxic dust, which is a threat to those living in the region.
As Imperial farmers conserve water, agricultural runoff to the Salton Sea is reduced. Evaporation shrinks the sea, exposing dry lakeshore and toxic dust, which is a threat to those living in the region. Associated Press file

Once dreamed of as a Riviera, the Salton Sea has become a decaying, smelly mess largely written off by the state of California. But in the West’s deeply interconnected water system, a decision to accept the Salton Sea’s decline risks not only the resilience of California’s water supplies, but those of 36 million residents of the United States and Mexico.

Seven U.S. states, the U.S. government and the Republic of Mexico are at the brink of a historic deal to reduce use of water from the overtapped Colorado River system. But without California’s willingness to step up and deal with the problems of the Salton Sea, this vital deal could collapse.

Speaking Dec. 15 at the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, Imperial Irrigation District general manager Kevin Kelley warned that without a firm commitment by the state of California to deal with the problems of the Salton Sea, Imperial will be unwilling to sign on to the critical agreement.

The problem is simple. As Imperial farmers conserve water – which they likely must if we are to balance the Colorado River Basin’s overdrawn water accounts – agricultural runoff to the Salton Sea is reduced. Evaporation from the desert sun shrinks the sea, exposing dry lakeshore and toxic dust. “For us,” Kelley said, “it’s an existential threat.”

The Salton Sea formed in the first decade of the 20th century when the Colorado River busted through a poorly built irrigation headworks and flooded a dry sink in California’s southeastern desert. It has been sustained since by the balance between agricultural runoff and evaporation.

We have been here before. In 2003, under an agreement among regional water agencies and the state, Imperial agreed to reduce its water use, knowing full well that without action in response, the Salton Sea would shrink. In return, the state gave what appeared to be a commitment to pursue an engineering fix of some sort to deal with the sea.

Imperial’s farmers have kept up their end of the deal, reducing their water use by 22 percent. But the state’s Salton Sea commitment has languished, and the citizens of Imperial rightly feel betrayed.

With another deal nearing completion to make crucial further Colorado River water use cutbacks, Kelley has drawn a line in the sand. Without a good-faith commitment from the state to keep its 2003 promise, Imperial will not sign the new agreement. Without Imperial – the largest water user on the Colorado River – there likely can be no deal.

The new agreement is in California’s best interests. California, Arizona and Nevada would agree to significant new cuts to protect Lake Mead, the reservoir that serves as the three states’ Colorado River savings account. Without it, a few years of deep drought could push Mead to dangerously low levels, putting water supplies to Southern California at risk. With the State Water Project linking Southern California to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the risks could ripple north through California’s entire water supply system.

Water managers in the rest of the Colorado River Basin – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and my own state of New Mexico – are watching nervously. We worry that shortfalls in Lake Mead could lead like tipping dominoes to water problems throughout the West as we try to share this interconnected, shrinking resource.

California needs to keep its commitment to the Salton Sea.

John Fleck is director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program and author of “Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West.” Contact him at jfleck@inkstain.net.

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