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Salton Sea, "No Longer A Good Place To Live"


Last updated 11/1/2017 at 9:48am

The Desert Sun has provided a story about the Salton Sea, and some say it may "no longer a good place to live."

Growing up near the Salton Sea during the 1960s, Johnson, now 59, remembers a healthy lake with a flourishing tourism industry. Southern Californians flocked to the shores of nearby Bombay Beach and Salton City to sun, sail and waterski. The sea, created by a major Colorado River outpouring caused by an engineering accident in 1905, had become a boon for the Imperial Valley.

Its glory days have come and gone. Today, the primary driver of change is a water transfer deal, the Quantification Settlement Agreement, that’s redirecting Colorado River water away from the Imperial Valley agriculture and toward the growing cities of San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. Intermittent periods of Drought, and changing global climate patterns, have complicated and exacerbated the problem.

The result is that the sea has begun to shrink. Most importantly for local residents, the Salton Sea’s receding waterline exposes vast stretches of lakebed, which releases tiny particles of airborne dust. The dust triggers asthma and allergies, especially in children, and can exacerbate cardiovascular conditions in older adults.

If left alone, the receding sea could leave 84,000 acres of dusty lakebed exposed by 2047, according to the Imperial Irrigation District’s estimates. Combined with local air pollution from vehicle emissions and agricultural burning, the dust represents a serious threat to respiratory health.

The public health costs could climb as high as $37 billion in the next three decades, according to a report released by the Pacific Institute. Treating chronic respiratory conditions is costly — the average hospitalization in Imperial County comes with a $16,000 price tag. Even if efforts are taken to minimize the blowing dust, annual public health costs will continue to grow as the sea shrinks.

In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District began paying farmers to fallow part of their land and send the excess “mitigation water” into the sea to slow the shrinkage. But this preventive measure ends after 2017, and California lawmakers, having failed to act during most of the 15-year interim period, have recently been scrambling to preclude the impending public health disaster.

A 10-year, $383 million plan was announced in March and designed to manage the situation. The plan details the proposed creation of thousands of acres of wetlands and ponds, which will both restore disappearing wildlife habitat and cover some of the lakebed that would otherwise be emitting dust.

Nearly 80 percent of the funding needed to enact the plan remains unsecured. But the state Legislature recently passed a $4 billion bond proposal, and if that measure is approved by voters next year, it would funnel an additional $200 million toward projects at the Salton Sea.

The initial $80 million that California has budgeted so far "shows how seriously the state takes the problem,” said Bruce Wilcox, an appointed state official responsible for coordinating Salton Sea policy. “It isn’t enough to finish the project, but it’s enough to get started.”

“But this is not just a state or local problem,” he said, citing the vast number of regions making claims on Colorado River water. “We need to learn how to manage water, period. Not just here — everywhere.”

At the heart of the issue are groups of competing stakeholders: farmers fighting for less regulation, public officials constrained by budgets and constituencies and the 180,000 primarily poor and Latino residents of Imperial County.

Battle has already ensued over a flag program intended to help local schools monitor daily air quality, and local youth have begun to mobilize and advocate for their communities. What remains to be seen is whether the promised collaboration between stakeholders will yield a solution for the impending public health emergency as residents continue to inhale toxic air on a daily basis.

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