Needed Now: A Sea Change
Several news outlets have recently published articles on water in the Imperial Valley but, quite tellingly, none even mentioned the Salton Sea. As a consequence of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), a water transfer deal forced on the Valley a decade ago, very little water now flows to replenish the Sea, exposing a salty, silty lakebed prone to launching masses of toxic particulate matter into the air with each gust of wind.
California is on the brink of an ecological disaster threatening the economies of Coachella, Imperial and beyond and everyone seems to feel either powerless to stop it -- or oblivious. But if the threat continues to be ignored, Inland Valley snow birds, golfers, developers, and concert goers will be in for a rude awakening when the area stinks and skies are polluted with contaminated dust from the dying Sea. Moreover, agriculture is a multi-billion dollar mainstay of the region, and pollution flying off the shrinking Sea could very well affect the survivability of winter crops.
While Imperial County, environmental groups, and many committed government employees have admirably worked to save the Sea, warring water bureaucracies have squandered millions of dollars while the Sea continues its steep decline. The final nail in the Sea’s coffin is about to be hammered in 2017, when so much water is diverted from the Sea that it will be past the point of no return. Fish and bird species will die; and the region will be inundated with unhealthful air pollution and noxious odors such as in September 2012 when Salton Sea stench wafted all the way to Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The 2017 tipping point is the direct consequence of the agreement to transfer water from Imperial to the Coachella Valley Water District and San Diego.
This was not meant to happen. In 2003, when the QSA was all but dead, the State of California stepped in to backstop the Salton Sea remediation, promising to pay for all costs exceeding the first $133 million and to develop a Restoration Plan by 2017 to mitigate impacts of the agreement. Apart from a pittance here and there, the State has failed to meet its obligations even as the Sea nears its tragic demise.
The urgency of this situation requires immediate action of the sort that tackled major infrastructure issues of the 20th Century and built the Panama Canal.
CURE urges the following immediate steps:
• A high-level, federal appointee whose SOLE responsibility it is to sift through the decades of technical data and to develop a science based Marshall-like plan prioritizing what must be done immediately to stabilize the Sea and what can be accomplished long-term to preserve our economy and environment. That plan must be accompanied by a realistic budget rather than the paltry sums currently allocated. Federal leadership is essential, because the reality is that the scope and cost of averting this disaster exceeds what local interests can manage. As matters stand today, the patchwork of efforts are uncoordinated and scattershot in terms of prioritization and timeframes.
• A “time out” for the 2017 water transfers which divert even more water from the Salton Sea. These diversions will exponentially reduce the flows that keep the Sea on life support today. Even if any of the current ideas like Geothermal or the Sea-to-Sea canal were approved and financed, none can be implemented in time to prevent the 2017 meltdown. The only true option at this point is for CVWD and San Diego to call a “time out” on taking their full 2017 allocation. To instead continue issuing “will serve” letters for more housing starts ignores the reality of how saleable those houses will be in the middle of the stench and toxic dust storms. However important the construction industry and real estate development may be now, this growth model will quickly come crashing down when people stop vacationing or buying homes here.
• The state of California must come forward and fulfill its financial responsibility to the people, farms, and businesses of the Valleys. The California Legislative Analyst has warned that the failure to act now will simple increase the costs immeasurably with each passing year.
• We need the help of philanthropic organizations like Gates, Annenberg and Ford to focus on the threat of food insecurity, pollution related illness, poverty, and environmental degradation here and now -- not in a foreign country. The community outreach, organizational skills and social infrastructure that these entities can bring to the solution are critical and almost completely lacking at this time.
• The business sector should fund updated economic studies evaluating the true cost of a dead Salton Sea to the real estate, tourist and golf industries in Coachella. Similarly, USDA and the State Department need to take a hard look at domestic food security as California farms increasingly fallow land to grow houses instead of food. Relying on imported crops carries many of the same risks as relying on imported oil, with the same potential for social upheaval if shortages occur.
CURE has a 15-year history of championing on behalf of the Salton Sea and the communities affected by its accelerating decline. CURE’s predictions – once ignored – have now come true. It is time for this issue to receive the serious public and private commitments essential to averting a grim economic and environmental future for this region. Though time is extremely short, it is not too late for a true Sea Change.