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Salton Sea Project, Conservation Mandate Troubles


Last updated 9/2/2022 at 1:12pm

A new mandate on water conservation could pose a major impact on the Salton Sea.

State officials have been busy this year to create a wetland habitat at the southern end of the lake.

Vivien Maisonneuve, who works on the Salton Sea Program within the California Department of Water Resources, said it is encouraging to see it is already working, despite it not being done yet. After a delay, the “Species Conservation Habitat Project” or SCH project is back up to its planned timeline, now at 60% completion. This massive project covers 4,100 acres. It’s the state’s first large-scale project here, costing $206.5 million.

“It was started for us at the south because given the depth and the very shallow area of it, we knew that this air will be exposed first and become very emissive and therefore, impacting water quality the most,” Maisonneuve said.

The CA Natural Resources Agency shared its progress: the completion of interception ditches built to collect water from drains, perimeter berms for habitat ponds, bird nesting and loafing islands, progress on the saline pump station which will bring lake water to the habitat ponds and dust control measures to stabilize about 500 acres of exposed lakebed. The SCH expects to be finished by the end of 2023.

$220 million has been devoted to the Salton Sea since 2021 in the state budget, with $40 million given last year in the 2021 – 22 fiscal year, and $100 million has been committed for the 2022 – 23 fiscal year. Officials are still deciding how to use that money.

Southern California gets about a third of its water from the Colorado River – a river that’s been getting drier and drier.

“The hydrological models that I’ve seen point out that even the Colorado River, by 2045, will lose at least 35% of its water,” Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea Program Manager for California Audubon, said.

And, California has to share that water with six other states. Now, to deal with the water decline, the federal government is mandating that the seven states that take water from the Colorado River – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada – commit to a water conservation plan.

He worries that the water conservation mandate, while responsible, will only fast forward the catastrophe at the sea.

“We may lose 350,000 acre feet of water flowing into the Salton Sea exacerbating the already existing condition. It’s going to spike salinity at a much faster pace. It is going to continue depleting the oxygen in the water, changing the ecosystem,” said Ruiz. “So the south sea is at the brink of a major ecological collapse.”

The state has responded to the water conservation mandate, with a full statement from the California Natural Resources Agency below:

Extremely dry conditions continue to pose challenges and impacts to California and much of the Western U.S. The Colorado River has historically provided a reliable surface water supply to California and the West through previous droughts. That situation is now changing because of the basin’s long-term Drought and climate change. The local water agencies who contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for Colorado River supplies have mixed circumstances - some rely entirely on Colorado River water while others have additional sources such as the State Water Project or local supplies.

In early June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the seven basin states and water users to submit a plan for reducing use of Colorado River supplies by 2 – 4 million-acre feet (MAF) beginning in 2023 to protect critical elevations in Lakes Powell and Mead. The Colorado River Board of California has been coordinating with the local agency water contractors, who have been working constructively and collaboratively to respond to Reclamation’s request. The state is working to support those discussions and to help ensure that impacts to the Salton Sea are addressed in any plan developed as part of this effort.

As part of its statewide Drought response activities, the state is already planning for the possibility that 2023 may be a fourth dry year. DWR will assist local agencies throughout California with the tools it has available, such as Drought response and water conservation grants.

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