The Biden administration announced Monday it will allocate up to $250 million for Salton Sea projects from Inflation Reduction Act funds in exchange for Colorado River conservation efforts by two Southern California water districts. The funds will come from $4 billion allocated by Congress in August for drought resilience programs.
The Imperial Irrigation District, which holds by far the largest rights to Colorado River water, is slated to hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday to vote on whether to approve the multi-agency agreement. The U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation, the California Natural Resources Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District are also partners in the deal. The historic announcement explicitly links cuts of Colorado River water supply to the rapidly dwindling Salton Sea, something IID officials have sought for years.
The future of the Salton Sea, and who is financially responsible for it, has been a sticking point in discussions over how to stave off the Colorado River crisis. The lake was formed in 1905 when the river overflowed, creating a resort destination that slowly morphed into an environmental disaster as water levels receded, exposing residents to harmful dust and reducing wildlife habitat.
The lake for decades has been largely fed by runoff from farms in the Imperial Valley, which use Colorado River water to grow many of the nation’s winter vegetables as well as feed crops like alfalfa. As the farmers reduce their water use, less flows into the lake. IID said it would only further reduce its reliance on the over-tapped river if the federal and state governments put up money to mitigate the effects of less water flowing into the sea, and assumed liability for the resulting airborne pollution from the drying lakebed, among other demands.
Under the agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation will provide $22 million in new funding through 2023 to implement planned and possibly future wetland and dust reduction projects at the sea, funding for staff support at the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe, and conducting research and management to aid project implementation.
In addition, if IID and CVWD follow through on Colorado River projects that would ultimately further reduce their use of that fast-disappearing water, the Bureau of Reclamation will provide an additional $228 million over the next four years to expedite Salton Sea projects and bolster staffing at the water agencies to deliver new projects.
If IID and CVWD further reduce their use of Colorado River water as expected, the state calculates that another 6,000 to 8,000 acres of polluted Salton Sea lakebed could be exposed. The lake is fed by irrigation surplus from Colorado River supply, as well as smaller rivers, but has rapidly dwindled as Colorado supplies to Imperial Valley farmers decreased in favor of transfers to urban areas.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems,” said Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Boudreau. “This landmark agreement represents a key step in our collective efforts to address the challenges the Colorado River Basin is facing due to worsening drought and climate change impacts. Historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act will help to support the Imperial and Coachella Valley and the environment around the Salton Sea, as well as support California’s efforts to voluntarily save 400,000 acre-feet a year to protect critical elevations at Lake Mead.”
State efforts could also pick up speed with new funds
The support is tied both to California’s commitment to voluntarily conserve 400,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually, starting in 2023, and to $583 million in state funds committed to Salton Sea restoration to date.
“This agreement is a huge step forward,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “It builds our momentum delivering projects at the sea to protect communities and the environment and ensures that California’s leadership conserving Colorado River water supplies doesn’t come at the expense of local residents.”
The agreement will expedite implementation of the state’s 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan, which is years behind schedule but picking up speed, and “enable urgent water conservation needed to protect Colorado River reservoir storage volumes amid persistent climate change-driven drought conditions,” according to an Interior Department announcement Monday.
The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is receding fast due to the drought crisis gripping the West and years of large annual transfers of Colorado River water from Imperial County to urban areas. Harmful dust from the exposed lakebed has been tied to asthma and other health problems in nearby communities. As the sea has contracted and become saltier, millions of fish have died, eliminating key food and a critical resting place for migrating waterfowl and other wildlife.
IID recently committed to conserve another 250,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water atop its earlier transfers, but made clear it would not do so without major funds and other commitments to address problems at the Salton Sea and to release the district from liability for the exposure of lakebed loaded with decades of farming fertilizers and pesticides. Monday’s announcement appears to satisfy many of the district’s demands, though Tuesday’s vote will tell if IID is satisfied. IID officials praised Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in particular for brokering the deal.
“This agreement was developed as part of an ongoing effort by the Imperial Irrigation District to bring external resources and broader partnerships to the Salton Sea’s many public health and environmental challenges,” said IID General Manager Henry Martinez. “The district has steadfastly advocated the connection of the Salton Sea to the Colorado River for decades, and we appreciate Commissioner Touton and Secretary Crowfoot’s direct involvement in this process as we work together to move California’s voluntary conservation proposal forward.”
“From the outset, IID made it clear that taking action to protect the Colorado River system would have significant impacts on the Salton Sea, and that IID’s participation was conditioned on real efforts and dollars to protect public health and wildlife around the Sea,” said IID board member JB Hamby, who also praised Touton. “The collaboration happening at the Salton Sea between water agencies and state, federal, and tribal governments is a blueprint for effective cooperation that the Colorado River Basin sorely needs.”
CVWD, which has thus far committed to a smaller, 35,000 acre-feet conservation effort, is also on board, according to the state announcement.
The district “recognizes the need for additional conservation efforts to protect the viability of the Colorado River for all users,” said CVWD General Manager Jim Barrett. “Understanding the importance of minimizing associated impacts to the Salton Sea through the additional conservation efforts, we fully support the efforts outlined in this agreement.”
Congressional representatives who pushed hard for the federal funds for the Salton Sea also hailed the announcement.
“The Bureau of Reclamation’s $250 million investment in California’s Salton Sea Management Plan will bring crucial resources to our communities and help protect our region’s health, environment, and economy,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Indio. “I’m glad to see Reclamation heed my calls to use drought mitigation funding under the Inflation Reduction Act to address the environmental and public health crisis at the Sea.”
Under the new agreement, California is committing to accelerating project delivery via permit streamlining and use of its contracting authority. The Interior Department, IID and CVWD have agreed to establish programmatic land access agreements to enable state agencies to implement projects.
California’s Natural Resources Agency committed several years ago to restore or tamp down dust on about 30,000 acres of exposed lakebed via a series of wetlands and dust furrowing projects. After years of delays, it made major strides on the first big project this year, the Species Habitat Plan at the south end of the sea, a 4,100-acre network of ponds that will provide important fish and bird habitat while suppressing dust.
IID has also implemented major furrowing projects to tamp down dust.
But more may still be required.
The Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people in Mexico and the U.S., is experiencing its longest and worst drought on record, driven by hotter temperatures under climate change, according to federal officials. Interior and Reclamation officials have threatened to impose new, mandatory cuts if voluntary efforts aren’t significant enough to avoid the collapse of the river’s massive reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Associated Press contributed to this report.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today’s Climate Point. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @janetwilson66.
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