May 21, 2007

Restoration of the Salton Sea: Final Solution May Be Close

By Marra, Bob

California Secretary of Resources, Michael Chrisman, unveiled his preliminary plan to save and restore the Salton Sea to the Salton Sea Advisory Committee in Sacramento last week. The draft plan would create a 34,000-acre lake in the Sea's northern area, develop 62,000 acres of wildlife habitat in the south section and create 29,000 acres of brine sinks. In all, Chrisman's plan calls for a 45 percent reduction in the size of the actual Sea, including 109,000 acres of exposed lake bed in the center that is of great concern to local representatives and citizens in Imperial County and the Coachella Valley. The Sea currently covers 240,000 acres.

The plan Chrisman has created was based in large part on what was known as the North Sea Alternative which called for a deep open- water lake in the north sector and a "saline habitat complex" of small pools designed to attract migrating birds and fish in the southern area of the Sea. In Chrisman's recommended plan, the north lake would be about 12 meters deep and include two extensions, each approximately a mile in width, down to Bombay Beach on the north side and to Salton City on the south side to maintain the lakefront property for current residents.

Some key components of the Salton Sea Authority's plan, which was strongly supported by local governments and business organizations throughout the impacted region, were not part of the recommendation. The most noteworthy missing component from the Authority's plan is a large dam that would create two separate north and south lakes - both geared for recreation opportunities while allocating significant space for habitat conservation. The draft proposal also did not include any allocation of space for wildlife habitat in the northern part of the lake.

While the draft plan differs significantly in many ways from the plan submitted to the Secretary for consideration by the Salton Sea Authority, it appears that there is room for compromise and it essentially takes seven other plans that were advanced by interested parties off the table. Chrisman said that he will incorporate input from members of the advisory committee and the public at large in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys before submitting his final recommendation.

"We are pleased that the state is moving closer to our vision of restoration, however, the state still has a way to go to revitalize the Salton Sea," said Gary Wyatt, chairman of the Salton Sea Authority. "Our plan is a true hybrid, incorporating the best aspects of other proposals while addressing the needs of the majority of all the stakeholders to create a complete solution. This has been recognized by more than 50 agencies and organizations in Imperial and Riverside counties that have endorsed the Authority's plan, as well as more than 5,000 individuals who have signed support cards," added Wyatt.

"In the last year, the state has listened to the stakeholders in the region and it now appears that we are very close to a solution for the restoration of the Sea that will work for everyone," stated Rick Daniels, Executive Director of the Salton Sea Authority "The restoration plan on the table, with some reasonable alterations, would achieve our goals of maintaining local an quality and the wildlife habitat while facilitating considerable recreational opportunities in the future."

In a prepared statement, the Authority noted that to be consistent with the Salton

Sea Authority plan, the state plan must include:

* A habitat in the north;

* A larger marine lake in the north;

* A recreational lake in the south;

* Water quality improvements, and

* Revisions to accommodate a variety of inflows consistent with the Quantification Settlement Agreement EIR that precludes future water transfers from the region.

Chrisman noted that he will present his final recommended plan for consideration by the state legislature in late April. At that time, they will have to create and approve the final plan and figure out how to pay for it.

The anticipated cost to implement the draft plan would be approximately $6 billion for the construction of 40 miles of barriers, 30 miles of air quality management canals and other necessary elements to subdivide the Sea plus a long list of related planning and engineering activities. The cost will clearly have to be paid for with funds from the federal government in addition to state and local funding. Chrisman did not present estimates for maintaining the newly created Sea and related elements. By all accounts, it will be a very significant amount - in the tens of millions at least, but local officials are confident that a slightly different plan could facilitate economic development opportunities that would create the ongoing revenue stream to maintain the new Sea configuration.

Even considering changes that could be made based on local input and potential compromises to several key issues, Chrisman's plan must be augmented with many more details, including water flow projections which may be the most critical of all the elements of the final plan. A change in the region's access to Colorado River water and the resulting drastic reductions in water supply available to the Sea through Imperial County farm runoff in the future - based on the landmark Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003 has been the real driving force in the recently invigorated efforts by the state legislature to seek the best solution possible to the Sea's woes.

Rick Daniels noted that U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who owns a home in Rancho Mirage, was able last week to include an allocation of $26 million within the $13-billion Water Resources Development Act that would jumpstart early stage construction activities at the Sea. Boxer is chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee which presented the bill. The bill has not been voted on yet, but Boxer and her colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) are confident that it "I gain the necessary votes and move on to the President for signature. The funds would go toward starting the necessary water treatment and habitat development projects and for preparation of the final environmental documents and permitting. In a prepared statement, Boxer noted, "With 90 percent of California's wetlands gone, the Salton Sea is more important than ever as a vital stopover for millions of migrating birds. But restoring the Sea is also about protecting the Coachella Valley's air quality. This federal support will bring in the engineering expertise and resources of the Army Corps of Engineers to help bring the Salton Sea back to life."

An even larger chunk of money - $47 million - is earmarked for early stage construction at the Sea in State Senator Denise Ducheney's Senate Bill 187. "Senator Ducheney has been an extremely strong and effective advocate for the restoration of the Salton Sea," noted Daniels.

"The Salton Sea Authority is excited about working with the state and federal governments, the local and environmental communities, as well as local agencies and private industry to realize a shared vision for restoration," said Daniels. "If we can work out the issues related to the differences between the state's plan and the plan advanced by the Salton Sea Authority, we could be under construction to restore and enhance the Sea within two years," Daniels added.

Copyright Desert Publication, Inc. and Sharon Apfelbaum Apr 03, 2007

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