EL CENTRO — More than five years ago, this newspaper described the Red Hill Bay marina restoration project as “the first decisive step in the efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”
Located near the Southeast corner of the Sea, the Red Hill Bay project is an effort to create hundreds of acres of shallow marine wetlands and reduce airborne dust from exposed playa caused by a receding Salton Sea. The project is a joint effort between Imperial Irrigation District, which owns the land, and the operator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
On Friday, IID found itself called before the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District (ICAPCD) to answer for inadequate progress of the project.
In June 2020, ICAPCD issued Notices of Violation to both Fish and Wildlife and IID for failure to maintain adequate dust controls under its Rules 401, 801 and 804. These rules establish performance requirements for construction and earthmoving activities and open areas.
An additional violation was issued to Fish and Wildlife for failure to comply with the conformity provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act and ICAPCD Rule 925.
ICAPCD contends construction of the habitat restoration project since has been “sporadic,” causing numerous instances of elevated levels of airborne dust.
Friday’s hearing was scheduled after two-on-two meetings between County Supervisors Mike Kelley and Ryan Kelley and IID Directors James Hanks and JB Hamby failed to yield a resolution.
Following the Notices of Violation, IID had seven months to discuss a stipulated abatement order with the air district. The IID ended those discussions with ICAPCD and is now asking for a continuance.
In the objection to the request for continuance, ICAPCD argued that IID refuses to agree to the most expeditious and best available control measures to control the dust by the Salton Sea as required by law.
ICAPCD described IID’s proposed dust control measure is some ill-defined combination of surface roughing with vegetation which does not comply with the law.
Meanwhile, IID thought a compromise had been reached in the two-on-two meetings and was surprised and disappointed to learn earlier this week that the hearing would take place on Friday.
IID General Manager Henry Martinez on Thursday urged the Board of Supervisors not to go forward with the hearing and instead continue to work with the irrigation district. The request was rejected.
Hamby said there was a unanimous agreement during the two-on-two meetings for proposed parameters of a stipulated order that had been made and is now referred to each agency.
The first parameter was to establish areas to be reserved for Cal-Energy’s future development of its geothermal rights at the Red Hill Bay site.
The second parameter was that within 90 days, IID would establish irrigated furrows using Alamo River water at the Red Hill Bay site, unless the areas were reserved for geothermal development.
IID would also install electrical lines and Alamo River water intake facilities, and by March 2022, establish and complete shallow flooding of Red Hill Basin with habitat for the site.
The compromise would have included IID and Imperial County working with USFWS in development of this project and turn over the site to USFWS or other wildlife entities once complete. If these timelines were not met, then this issue could be referred back to the hearing board.
“Wednesday, it blew up, and the county staff changed the terms,” Hamby said. “It had nothing to do with solving the problems.”
Since the ICAPCD staff is serving as the jury in the hearing Hamby said he is pretty sure IID has little chance to prevail.
“We feel pretty confident we will lose, but we will appeal.” he said. “It will go to an actual court, not a kangaroo court.”
In an attempt to sway the supervisors to change their minds on having the hearing, Hamby sent them a letter Monday night. He said he thinks they may have read it in closed session, but the attempt to continue negotiations rather than have the hearing failed.
“There is a problem that needs to be fixed, but there has been no cooperation (with ICAPCD and county staff),” he said. “They did not want to move an inch. They wanted 100 percent with no compromise.”
He also said he thinks this decision to have the hearing mischaracterizes what is happening at the Salton Sea and Red Hill Bay.
The parties who are benefitting from the hearing are the attorneys both sides have retained, he said.
“This was about egos and attorneys.” he said. “It was not about public health. Everyone is in agreement that we want to protect public health, have clean air and habitat.”
It is not known when the hearing will conclude or when a ruling will be released.