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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Environmental Groups AND State OK $8.9 Billion Salton Sea Restoration Plan

(click on map to enlarge)

The 75-year effort to save the polluted resource would cut it to about a fifth its current size and add sections of wildlife habitat.

By David Kelly, Times Staff Writer
May 26, 2007

An ambitious $8.9-billion, 75-year plan to save the Salton Sea was handed to state lawmakers Friday. It calls for a drastically shrunken lake, the creation of a new "marine sea" and creation of thousands of separate wildlife habitats.

"What we have done here is truly historic," said Michael Chrisman, California's resources secretary. "There is a little bit in here for everyone. There will be a lot of debate, and we think that is very healthy."

The plan, three years in the making, would reduce the Salton Sea to about a fifth of its current size. The water would be less salty, and sport fish, such as the corvina that vanished five years ago, would be reintroduced.

The plan calls for the creation of a 62,000-acre "saline habitat complex," a series of 1,000-acre cells that would include bits of shoreline, islands and peninsulas to be habitat for birds, fish and invertebrates.

A special 2,000-acre habitat would be built first to help save species, such as the tilapia, that are threatened by rising salt levels.

Under the proposal, 52 miles of barriers and 158 miles of berms would be added, and 106,000 acres of lake bed would be exposed.

"The Legislature said in 2003 that the restoration of the sea is critically important," Chrisman said. "There will be a big debate about the cost and timeline, but my sense is that the Legislature has already said yes and we will move forward."

At 15 miles wide and 35 miles long, the Salton Sea is the biggest lake in California. It was created accidentally in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through a levee.

There is no natural outlet, so the water is getting saltier and more polluted from agricultural runoff. It's already 25 times saltier than the ocean.

The last major fish species remaining is the tilapia, and scientists say that fish could disappear by 2018.

Tilapia are the chief food source for many of the 400 bird species, such as the endangered brown pelican, that winter on the lake.

Chrisman said the $8.9 billion for the project probably would come from a combination of local, state and federal sources and a variety of partnerships.

"True, it's expensive, but it's a price tag over 75 years," he said.

As the lake shrinks and huge areas of its floor are exposed, a major issue will be air quality. In places such as the Imperial Valley, into which the lake extends, childhood asthma caused by swirling dust clouds is a major problem.

"Air quality will be a big-ticket issue; we realized that early on," said Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea office for the state Department of Water Resources.

She said water would be used to keep the area wet so dust wouldn't swirl, that salt-tolerant vegetation would be planted and vehicles would be banned from areas where they probably would kick up dirt.

But Rick Daniels, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, is worried.

"We are very skeptical about the air quality. We cannot afford to have a big dustbowl like the Owens Valley out there on our eastern border," he said. "It would destroy the area as a result."

He also said that the Torres Martinez tribe, which has 11,000 acres of its reservation land beneath the sea, does not want its submerged ancient villages to suddenly appear when water levels drop.

"They don't want scavengers out there," he said. "These are all technical things that will be solved. Even though it has warts and blemishes, it's worth moving forward."

The plan was embraced by the Salton Sea Coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, the Pacific Institute and the Defenders of Wildlife.

"Now it's up to the Legislature to make good on the secretary's efforts and not abandon the sea, or the hopes and hard work of the many people who have devoted so much time to designing a plan that meets that the state's obligations to protect public health and wildlife," said Jim Metropulos, legislative representative of Sierra Club California.

Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife California said in a statement, "Failing to restore the Salton Sea is simply not an option. The sea is just too important to the people, agriculture, economy and wildlife of the region for us not to save it."

The timeline for construction, assuming the plan is approved, would be broken into four periods beginning in 2007 and ending in 2078, with most of the major building to take place between 2014 and 2025.

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