California officials reject biggest plan to save the Salton Sea with ocean water "to save costs"

Josue Torres
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Sea Salton getting drier.(Canva Pro)

Since the Salton Sea has been in danger of ecological collapse, some locals and environmentalists have argued for a dramatic solution to the lake’s decline: a significant injection of ocean water.

They assert that California could halt its greatest lake from dwindling and becoming saltier and could restore its once-thriving environment by pumping desalinated saltwater over the desert. They contend that without additional water, the lake will continue to shrink and its receding shorelines will reveal expanding sections of the lake’s dry bed, which will emit dangerous dust and greenhouse gases.

The Salton City organization EcoMedia Compass claims on its website that the Salton Sea is drying up, along with water for people and the ecosystem. Their proposal? Import water from the ocean to safeguard the sustainability of the lake.

But after a year-long investigation, a state-appointed team of experts rejected the concept, dealing a serious blow to proponents of ocean water harvesting.

A plan to desalinate saltwater in Mexico’s Gulf of California, commonly known as the Sea of Cortez, and transport it north over the border was examined by the panel’s seven members. The group came to the conclusion that California shouldn’t proceed with such a scheme due to the anticipated tens of billions of dollars in expenses, harm to the coastal ecology, and a lengthy building period before any water would reach the lake.

Professor Brent Haddad of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, who oversaw the panel’s study team, said the project is not viable. 

The panel reviewed the results in a virtual conference last week after presenting its conclusions in two reports. According to the group, the state should no longer explore importing water from the Sea of Cortez to restore the Salton Sea.

Advocates for importing saltwater criticized the report, saying it was seriously faulty and appeared to be intended to disprove the idea.

Tom Sephton, board president of the EcoMedia Compass, said the panel managed to find a means to permanently rule out ocean water import from consideration.

One of the options that the panel thought over came from Sephton, who manages a modest demonstration desalination facility near the Salton Sea. He vehemently objected to the panel’s methodology and cost projections, labeling the results as “totally ridiculous.”

The argument reveals a protracted and deep-seated disagreement over how California should handle the Salton Sea’s deteriorating health as the state adjusts to recurring droughts made worse by the consequences of climate change.

The Imperial Irrigation District should be negotiated a contract to compensate farmers who willingly leave farms dry and provide water to the lake. The panel rejected the concept of piping in ocean water and instead suggested that the state strike a deal with them.

Such a strategy would encounter significant obstacles and is not currently supported by state leaders. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are already being pushed to use less water as part of initiatives to keep the reservoirs of the Colorado River from dangerously low levels.

More than 300 square miles of Imperial and Riverside counties are covered by the Salton Sea. The Salton Trough, which is about 240 feet below sea level, has cycled over thousands of years between overflowing with Colorado River water and drying out.

Between 1905 and 1907, the Salton Sea was filled by the flooded river; since then, it has been kept full by water that drains from Imperial Valley fields. Since the Imperial Irrigation District started selling some of its water to expanding metropolitan areas under a deal with organizations in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley in the early 2000s, the lake has been getting smaller.

Since 2003, the lake’s level has dropped by around 11 feet. Due to this change, fish and bird populations have experienced sharp reductions. Its water is already twice as salty as the ocean and is only continuing to become saltier with evaporation.

By 2028, it was proposed in California’s 10-year plan for the Salton Sea that almost 30,000 acres of wetland habitat and dust-control projects be built surrounding the lake.

A 4,110-acre project to control dust and provide a habitat for fish and birds is underway at the southern end of the lake after years of delays, with workers using heavy gear to move soil.

State officials assembled an expert team in October 2021 to examine the theories behind water imports. The panel’s members included water scientists and engineers. The panel stated in the reports that all but three of the 18 concepts they looked at had severe faults.

The panel projected the initial cost to be $65.7 billion or $78.4 billion and rejected the idea due to its enormous cost, environmental harm, and negligible advantages to Mexico, among other problems.

Instead, it suggested that the government partner with the Imperial Irrigation District to create a voluntary, compensated fallowing program that would pay farmers to consume less water. More than 5% of the 2.6 million acre-feet that the IID diverts yearly would be set aside for the lake, or 145,000 acre-feet annually.

Building a desalination facility that would collect water from the Salton Sea and return fresh water is another component of this strategy. The dried salt would be put onto trains and transported to landfills as the brine flowed into evaporation ponds.

The panel estimated the costs of their solutions to be $17 billion.

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