Tentative plan could be biggest step forward for the Salton Sea, officials say

Salton Sea. Adobe Stock Photo

In just 128 days, mitigation water deliveries mandated by the 2003 water transfer will end. Meanwhile, the Salton Sea is expected to start receding at a much faster pace leaving thousands of acres of emissive playa exposed.

Under the Quantification Settlement Agreement in which the State of California assumed responsibility to find a solution for the Salton Sea, the 2018 date to end mitigation water delivery was set to give the state enough time to come up with a solution. Nearly 15 years have passed and that promise has gone unfulfilled.

Despite the overwhelming challenges ahead, local officials believe they are close to achieving a crucial win to mitigate the health and environmental woes caused by the decline of California’s largest lake.

On Sept. 7, the State Water Resources Control Board has scheduled a public workshop in which it will review the proposed plan formally called Draft Stipulated Order — which was negotiated between the Imperial Irrigation District, Imperial County, the state and other stakeholders.

The tentative order would be an amendment to the water order, the water board issued on Oct. 28, 2002, which approved the long-term transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego County Water Authority, Coachella Valley Water District and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The overarching goal is for the state of California to commit to a series of annual milestones regarding the number of exposed acres covered under the Salton Sea Management Program and give the water board jurisdiction to hold the state accountable if the goals aren’t met.

“This is huge, it’s the single most important step we’ve taken. It’s not everything we requested but would be the most progress we’ve made to this date in the Salton Sea effort,” said Governmental Affairs Officer for IID, Antonio Ortega. “(If approved) it would send a strong message that the state is serious about this issue.”

In March, the state unveiled its 10-year plan which intends to implement a variety of dust suppression and habitat projects to cover nearly 30,000 acres of exposed lakebed in the next 10 years. The total price tag for the full 10-year plan is $383 million and to date, only $80 million of that amount has been allocated.

The draft stipulated order set the same 29,800 acres of exposed lakebed to be covered by 2029, but it also sets yearly objectives starting with 500 acres by Jan. 1, 2019, and rises incrementally to 4,000 acres or more to be covered in the final three years.

Another important commitment in the order, includes a requirement for the state to develop a phase II plan at the Salton Sea that will outline the next 10 years of activities and projects to be undertaken, that plan should be finalized no later than by the end of 2022.

County Supervisor for District 4 Ryan Kelley, who represents the residents of the northern portion of the county which includes the Salton Sea, said that this plan has been long in the making.

He said the County and IID partnering to make state officials aware that they were failing in their commitment to mitigate the public health and environmental concerns caused by the decline of the lake, has been an important driving force which has taken them this far.

Because the efforts at the Salton Sea will require active participation by the state for many years to come, stakeholders want a commitment that goes beyond the tenure of Gov. Jerry Brown whose term expires at the end of 2018. The order will continue to force the state to keep an active role in the Salton Sea regardless of the agenda of future governors.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “We’ve made it very clear that Imperial County residents and landowners are not paying for the impacts the water transfer has caused in the Imperial Valley.”

Another of the main points of the plan calls for the water board to hold a public meeting every year no later than March 31, to receive oral and written comments on the status of the Salton Sea restoration and include a report from state agencies identifying completed projects and milestones achieved the prior year among other requirements.

“This plan will put projects on the ground with deliverable timelines and affirming the commitment of the state as the lead agency and will set triggers that put the state on the hook to remediate the situation,” Kelley said. “It’s a win for Imperial County to have the state put this on paper and have a commitment.”

Although the water board is not expected to take any action during the Sept. 7 workshop, the order could be back for a vote as early as during its Sept. 19 meeting.

During Monday’s IID Board of Directors meeting, the agency’s general manager Kevin Kelley said the IID hopes that by the end of the year the draft stipulated order, Minute 323 and the drought contingency plan between Colorado River users will be finalized.

Member of the public can submit their comments regarding the Salton Sea Management Program and the draft stipulated order to the state water board by noon on Sept. 1.

Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at edelgado@ivpressonline.com

Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at edelgado@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3440.

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