An independent review panel convened to evaluate water importation concepts for the shrinking Salton Sea is advising against water importation plans, instead recommending a combination of desalination and water from the Imperial Irrigation District.
The state-appointed Salton Sea Independent Review Panel was established in October 2021 to evaluate 18 water importation concepts submitted in response to two Requests for Information issued in 2018 and 2021. The panel was specifically tasked with taking a “long-term” perspective for resolving longstanding public health issues caused by receding shorelines at California’s largest lake.
Thirteen water importation concepts passed an initial screening, and three passed a “fatal flaw” review in July — all of which involved importing water from the Sea of Cortez, which lies between Baja California and mainland Mexico.
But in its fourth and final report issued Thursday, the panel ultimately did not recommend importing water from the Sea of Cortez to address long-term problems at the Salton Sea.
“The Sea of Cortez Import Concept was rejected by the Panel based on its high cost, environmental damage, minimal benefits to Mexico beyond construction and operations jobs, and potential that benefits would not be realized,” states the summary report, released late Thursday.
Instead, the panel recommends building a large desalination plant near the Salton Sea, then removing 200,000 acre-feet of salty water from the sea each year for desalination. After desalination, 100,000 acre-feet of pure water would be returned to the sea each year. The other 100,000 acre-feet would be the salty waste product that results from the desalination process.
To replace that lost 100,000 acre-feet, the panel recommends a program that would compensate Imperial Irrigation District farmers for fallowing their land, with the saved water flowing into the Salton Sea.
Several people criticized this recommendation during a public Zoom meeting held Friday night for the panel to discuss its findings. Critics questioned whether such a fallowing program was feasible, given the ongoing drought and the fact that federal officials say the seven states that rely on the Colorado River need to reduce their Colorado River water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet next year.
One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to serve one to two households per year.
“We will review the report, and discuss it with our board of directors and our general manager,” said Imperial Irrigation District spokesperson Antonio Ortega, who declined to provide further comment to The Desert Sun on Friday.
Imperial Irrigation District holds among the oldest and largest Colorado River water rights, and as of earlier this month was considering the idea of cutting back by 250,000 acre-feet per year through 2026, although negotiations are ongoing.
The seven-member independent Salton Sea panel is coordinated by UC Santa Cruz and chaired by Rominder Suri, a Temple University civil and environmental engineering professor who specializes in water, environment and technology.
The final summary report was released alongside a feasibility report that evaluated the technical, economic, and social and political challenges of importing water from the Sea of Cortez and of two additional approaches.
The summary report states that the panel “identified two additional approaches to importation” during its process, and subjected them to the same feasibility analysis. One of these two new approaches is the concept of desalination in conjunction with water from the Imperial Irrigation District.
The panel ultimately arrived at three conclusions:
- First, that there are “workable approaches” to minimizing the dust stemming from the exposed playa, or shoreline, beyond just flooding the basin with additional water.
- Second, that managing salt through desalination will be a central component of long-term management of the sea, and that the region’s existing rail system can be used to dispose of salt removed from the sea.
- And third, that “it is not necessary to refill the Salton Sea to its mid/late 20th-century volume. A lower-volume sea can also achieve today’s environmental, air quality, and economic goals for the region. This conclusion led the Panel to reframe the role of imported water.”
The “Colorado River Voluntary Transfer Concept” now being recommended by the panel was one of the two late-stage submittals the panel analyzed. The concept is based on a voluntary fallowing program operated by IID from 2003 to 2017, and would involve offering Imperial County farmers the opportunity to forgo planting their fields in exchange for cash payments, producing “net additional imports” of 100,000 acre-feet per year, enough to offset the water lost from brine production at the desalination facility.
The panel also recommends “kick-starting” the Salton Sea’s recovery with one-time flows of between 100,000 and 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to slow the sea’s growing salinity levels.
Panel doesn’t recommend Sea of Cortez water
The Sea of Cortez concept would also involve desalination. The primary components of that plan involve desalinating water at the Sea of Cortez, installing pipelines to transport that water to the Salton Sea, and also desalinating water at the Salton Sea to further reduce salinity.
After starting with 18 potential water importation concepts, the panel is ultimately recommending none of them. This drew criticism on Friday, with Kerry Morrison, founder and executive director of EcoMedia Compass, asking the panel, “Why did you make your own proposals instead of moving forward with recommendations on the three that passed your feasibility analysis?”
In response, Brent Haddad, the panel’s principal investigator, emphasized that the panel came to the conclusion that “the focus should be on removing salt from the Salton Sea, and you don’t have to refill the Salton Sea to its late 20th-century level to get the benefits that a lower-salt Salton Sea will give.”
Lower salinity would make the sea more habitable for wildlife including fish and birds, potentially improving the tourist economy near the lake and reducing negative health effects from massive fish die-offs and other issues.
The Salton Sea sits below sea level, and its elevation is currently around -232 feet, according to the Salton Sea Authority. The panel estimates that the sea would have an elevation of -258 feet by 2078 under its recommended plan, compared with an elevation of -233 or -239 with water imported from the Sea of Cortez.
The panel says its recommended option would be cheaper and could be implemented much sooner than water importation from the Sea of Cortez. The panel estimates that the Colorado River Voluntary Transfer Concept would have an initial cost of $17 million, compared to $65 billion to $78 billion for a Sea of Cortez import project. After these initial costs, the two Sea of Cortez importation scenarios the panel considered would cost anywhere between $305 million to $3.8 billion per year for operation and maintenance, while the Colorado River Voluntary Transfer Concept would have annual costs between $22.7 million and $2.5 billion.
“Achieving the benefits of Salton Sea restoration without refilling the sea to its 20th-century volume will avoid environmental damage and save California billions of dollars,” Haddad said.
‘A smaller sea and a larger playa’
The Salton Sea, which is roughly twice as salty as the ocean, covers about 325 square miles, almost twice the surface area of Lake Tahoe, but it is rapidly shrinking. Since 2003, the sea’s elevation has dropped by about 10 feet and its surface area has shrunk by about 38 square miles, according to the Water Education Foundation, an education and outreach organization.
For more than a century, the Salton Sea was sustained by irrigation runoff from the Imperial and Coachella Valleys and local rivers. Over time, farm-to-city water transfers meant more water headed to San Diego County and the Coachella Valley — and less flowed into the Salton Sea.
The panel envisions a future Salton Sea not with more water, but with the same amount of water but less salt, in addition to dust suppression efforts along the playa.
“The Panel is optimistic that the future of the Salton Sea is bright. That future entails a smaller sea and a larger playa,” states the summary report.
It continues, “A smaller, restored Sea will reduce noxious odors, improve the look of the Sea, and provide recreation opportunities, allowing it to return to being a jewel in the Californian desert, and a place others will want to visit and live next to again.”
“The panel has no authority over what will be done with its recommendations, that’s up to the state,” said Haddad, noting that with the conclusion of Friday’s meeting, the panel was officially disbanded.
James Newcomb, who is leading the development of the state’s long-range plan for the Salton Sea, said the panel’s reports will be used as “one point of information” in developing the long-range plan, which is due at the end of this year.
Newcomb added that in developing the long-range plan, the state will consider the three concepts evaluated in the panel’s feasibility report, which includes the Sea of Cortez water importation concept.
“Our evaluation is going to focus on a project’s abilities to deliver better air quality, water quality, and habitat against their relative costs and risks, particularly as it relates to hydrology,” said Newcomb.
Erin Rode covers the environment for the Desert Sun. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @RodeErin.
Visit our sponsors
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.