2/26/16 – Big projects floated to save the Salton Sea

Desert Sun, 2-26-16

Although there are some short- and medium-term fixes already in the works, the job of saving the Salton Sea is a long-term proposition – one that requires planning well into the next decades.

A group of local leaders – known as the Long Range Plan Committee – has been assembled under the auspices of the California Natural Resources Agency to convene a series of meetings to listen to presentations that address long-term solutions for the sea.

The first of these public meetings was held Wednesday at the Imperial County offices in El Centro, followed by more presentations on Thursday at the Coachella Valley Water District’s building in Palm Desert.

Bruce Wilcox, California’s Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy, ran the meeting, which included 90-minute proposals focused on geothermal technology, environmental management and solutions that focused on bringing water in from the Pacific Ocean and economic development.

Up first was Michael Clinton, of Michael Clinton Consulting LLC, whose presentation outlined ways to restore the sea in a manner that makes “economic and environmental sense.”

The $46 billion plan included:

  • A hydro-electric pumped storage component that could add from 86 to 400 megawatts of peak period generation to the Imperial Irrigation District and Southern California power system.
  • A new transmission path that could support geothermal development in the southeastern Salton Sea area.
  • A new water supply for the Colorado River Basin of as much as 600,000 acre-feet of water a year.
  • Economic development for the Cucupah Tribe in Mexico through the operation of a new flat-water recreation area.
  • A deep-water port for Mexicali spurring economic development for northwest Mexico and the southern U.S.

“If you don’t dream, you can’t set a target for the future,” Clinton said.

Nathan White, Chief Environmental Officer for AGESS, Inc. – Alternative Generating Energies & Sustainable Solutions – offered up the company’s professional project management services to implement alternate water, food and energy solutions to the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley.

He proposes using the company’s cumulative technologies to treat existing degraded conditions at the Salton Sea. Those include treatment by means of lagoon-floating wetlands and discharge into existing wetlands and back into groundwater. Specialized plants, microalgae and brine shrimp would be used to clean the water. Renewable energy generation would come from biomass, animal feed.

Exploring the concept of reproductive wetlands would be the backbone of the company’s land-use management objective.

Mitigation of the playa with a wetland would be coupled with the cultivation of algae, treatment of nutrients, selenium and salinity and the creation of fish farms that can benefit the local community.

The next  presentation was made my Kjell Erickson of American Research & Development, who kicked off his pitch with a catchy phrase: Save the Salton Sea – Just Add Water. With the use of private – rather than federal or state – money.

He argued that so many Californians are unaware of the sea itself, let alone its problems, and politicians don’t want to be asked for money, and explained there’s a much better way to skin a tilapia, so to speak.

“The lake is a treasure trove,” Erickson said. “We have found the keys to unlock the Salton Sea’s treasure chest … the lake is not a liability, it’s a huge asset. The technology that now exists could make this project a reality … restore the lake to its original shoreline.”

The restoration, he said, could be paid for without any taxpayer money and in fact, he said, without going into too many details, discussions are underway with several financial entities to obtain corporate bonds in the amount of $100 billion.

“The money has already been lined up,” he said.

As with the other projects presented, Erickson outlined myriad components of the plan, which centers on bringing water from the Pacific Ocean – from 100 feet below sea level (the weight of the ocean will push the water to the Salton Sea, he said) – through 80 miles of tunnels leading to the sea.

Along the way, minerals could be harvested from the seawater.

“We basically have an 80-mile-long mineshaft,” he said.

The plan also calls for the creation of fresh water, which would service all southern California counties and building islands in the sea – which will displace over 50 percent of the water in the lake, raising its level even before any additional water is added. Once the water flows into the lake, from the north, it will create a current.

“Right now, we have a stagnant mud puddle,” he said.

If this plan moves forward, he said people should be prepared to see two to three dozen barges on the water for a couple of years, while they dredge the bottom of the Salton Sea down to about 60 to 75 feet.

Tunnel boring machines to dig the 80-mile, underground channel will have to be specially ordered. They take around 12 to 18 months to build. Once those are on hand, it will take two-and-a-half to three years to drill the tunnels.

The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe has reservation land in the area – much of the tribe’s originally designated land was flooded when the Salton Sea was created – so Erickson floated the idea of setting loose Mississippi River boats for some “gambling on the Salton Sea.”

Erickson also talked about the possibility of sea cruises and the creation of the Salton Sea Gardens, styled after the famous Butchart Gardens in British Columbia.

Another keystone of the project is the proposed creation of the Salton Sea Institute of Technology, which would be touted as the world’s largest hydrology research facility.

I had to leave before the final presentation, “Scientific Geothermal Technology,” by Nikola N. Lakic, architect, founder and CEO of La Quinta-based Geothermal Worldwide, Inc. I was able to snag a copy of the presentation, which consists of the following phases: Connecting the Salton Sea with the Ocean, preferably the San Diego/Carlsbad/Oceanside area; Building two main dykes – one in the northern and another in the southern part of the Salton Sea and several secondary dikes for forming ponds (wetland) for treatment of farmland runoff waters, and building power plants.

Wilcox said all of these proposals will be reviewed in more detail by the committee – comprised of stakeholders including Phil Rosentrater of the Salton Sea Authority, Andy Horne of Imperial County, Alberto Ramirez of the Torres Martinez tribe, Doug Barnum of USGS, Joan Taylor of the Sierra Club and Cindy Thielman-Brown of Riverside County – and a one or two page summary of the results will be given to the project proponent after the 30 to 60-day review period.

The proposals/presentation and the summary reports will be public documents and will be included on the Salton Sea Management Program website.

On my way out, I ran into longtime, local developer Dick Oliphant – who also operates American Research & Development – and has been working on the project for years.

“We’ve spent since 2003 – about 13 years – assembling all the concepts and ideas and we’ve been involved with engineers, now for five years, to get pipe sizes and fluid movement,” he said. “What we have is all workable – and it’s all off-the-shelf. What we’re trying to do is make the Salton Sea into a laboratory, so that we can be a center for the study of hydrology and plants and animals and anything around the sea.

Oliphant reiterated the project would be funded with private money

“We can do that because we generate the electricity and all the fresh water – that’s marketable,” he said.

The idea for those islands was bounced around about a decade ago.

“It sort of came from those old ideas, because that’s one of the problems we had – if we’re going to create the fresh water, how do we store it? And instead of taking fresh land somewhere else, we decided to displace part of the Salton Sea, which would be beneficial because it reduces the amount of salt water we have to deal with and the outflows.”

Some of the ideas 

— Pump water in from the Pacific Ocean

— Build islands in the lake

— Run Mississippi Riverboats (gambling on the sea)

— Offer cruises around the lake

— Build the Salton Sea Institute of Technology

— Create reproductive wetlands