1/6/16 – IID presses California to pay for Salton Sea fixes

Desert Sun, 1-6-16

There’s been a lot of progress at the Salton Sea in the last year, but local officials and activists aren’t taking anything for granted.

In what’s becoming a regular ritual, representatives from the Imperial Irrigation District and other groups trekked to Sacramento on Tuesday to make the case for action on the Salton Sea. They urged state officials to fulfill their promise to pay for fixes at California’s largest lake, and to support geothermal energy development, which many see as critical to generating restoration funds.

The State Water Resources Control Board hosted a workshop Tuesday in response to a petition from the Imperial Irrigation District. The petition threatens to cut off promised water transfers to the Coachella Valley and San Diego County if the state doesn’t live up to its decade-old promise to restore the Salton Sea — a threat that observers credit with sparking a flurry of action over the last year.

While Tuesday’s discussion played out in front of the state water board, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature will ultimately decide how much money California antes up for the Salton Sea. Several speakers Tuesday said they’re eager to see Brown’s next budget proposal, which is scheduled to be released Thursday.

“I do think we’re going to have to deal with the financing issue really quick,” said water board vice chair Frances Spivy-Weber, who serves on the Salton Sea task force that Brown convened last year. “Once the governor’s budget is out, we’re going to have to reconvene very quickly and look at what we have, and what are the out-of-the-box ideas that we might be pursuing?”

The Salton Sea has been shrinking for years as farm runoff declines, threatening fish and birds and exposing vast swaths of dry lakebed covered in hazardous dust. Tens of thousands of acres are expected to be exposed over the next few decades, creating serious air pollution in the Imperial and Coachella valleys as strong winds blow particulate matter and toxic chemicals into the air.

“Without action, not only will there be an environmental catastrophe, but a public health tragedy. It simply cannot happen,” Ralph Cordova, Imperial County’s executive officer, said Tuesday.

Over the last year, local officials have coalesced around short- and medium-term plans to stave off the worst health and environmental impacts of the lake’s slow collapse, which will accelerate when Colorado River flows are cut off in 2018. Those plans involve building a series of wetlands and canals to ring the current shoreline, surrounding a smaller, saltier center lake.

But it’s unclear who will pay for those projects, which could end up costing several billion dollars. And there’s little agreement on what a long-term strategy should look like, or how much it would cost. Local activists and some elected officials hope to see water imported from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, although many experts have dismissed that idea as impractical and prohibitively expensive.

Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Kelley called on state officials to help develop — and ultimately pay for — a long-term restoration plan, even as shorter-term projects to address the immediate crisis move forward.

“We can live with incremental projects. We can accept incremental funding. But we can’t just abide an incremental vision,” Kelley said. “It’s the vision thing that we’re short on.”

Kelley also mentioned a recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which concluded that new geothermal plants might generate $210 million, at best, to support the Salton Sea. A previous report commissioned by the Imperial Irrigation District estimated that geothermal developers could contribute as much as $2 billion, a number that lifted the hopes of Salton Sea advocates.

The new report, though, noted that building geothermal plants is so expensive that development near the Salton Sea has already ground to a halt. Requiring energy companies to pay for Salton Sea projects, researchers said, could make development impossible.

The latest study, Kelley argued, underscores the need for state officials to provide more support for geothermal. Advocates have long argued that major utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission are biased against the technology. While it’s more expensive than solar and wind, geothermal plants can generate clean energy around the clock — which solar and wind farms cannot.

If California wants to meet its 50 percent clean energy mandate, Kelley said, it will need geothermal.

“Geothermal has a place at the Salton Sea, and it has a place in the toolbox to address the problems of the Salton Sea,” he said. “The Salton Sea ought to be the climate-change proving grounds for California.”

Sarah Friedman, a senior representative at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, echoed that assessment. While geothermal has higher up-front costs than wind and solar, she said, it also has major benefits, including the possibility of aiding Salton Sea restoration. Geothermal could also help California avoid the need for polluting gas-fired power plants, which often supplement intermittent wind and solar farms.

The public utilities commission, Friedman said, needs to do a better job of calculating geothermal’s benefits.

“There’s a huge opportunity for geothermal at the Salton Sea…but we’re really going to need further action from the state to make it happen,” she said.