1/7/16 – SWRCB commits to take bigger role in Salton Sea Restoration

Imperial Valley Press, 1-7-16

The State Water Resources Control Board finally affirmed its commitment to find a solution for the Salton Sea during the board’s Salton Sea workshop on Tuesday.

The workshop took place after being pressured by the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County officials in September and also in part by IID’s warning of not complying with the water transfers if the state would step up to fulfill its promise.

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During the closing comments SWRCB chair Felicia Marcus stated the board was committed to continue the discussion to find a solution for the sea. The SWRCB will have quarterly meetings with stakeholders and pertaining agencies to monitor progress at the sea and also called for the development of short-, medium- and long-term plans to be generated this year.

“The message was clear. Actions not activities need to happen,” said Imperial County Board of Supervisors chairman Ryan Kelley.

IID spokesperson Marion Champion said that hearing that the SWRCB commitment to take an oversight role was encouraging.

Local officials ramp up the pressure

With the goal of conveying the water board to step up their actions and act to restore the quickly deteriorating Salton Sea, the delegation of local representatives urged the board for a more serious commitment from the state and its agencies to address the problem.

IID General Manager Kevin Kelley and Imperial County Executive Officer Ralph Cordova Jr. made a presentation to the water board regarding the impending health and environmental catastrophe the Salton Sea will become to the local communities if no action is taken.

During the presentation Kelley told the board that if the state remains in the status quo more than 74,000 acres of highly emissive shoreline will get exposed by 2047. He noted that the effect would be that at the southern end the Salton Sea could recede more than four miles of where it currently stands, which will dramatically diminish the air quality and public health for the residents of the Imperial Valley.

Cordova said that consequences would be devastating for the county with the largest unemployment rate in the state, one of the areas with the lowest access to health care and the region in the state with the highest rate of children with respiratory conditions such as asthma.

“We can’t wait another 14 years. Imperial Valley residents deserve better,” Cordova said to the board. “Only with your assistance it will happen. Be the solution.”

Despite the fact that more action regarding the Salton Sea was taken during 2015, than in previous years, hardly any of them were projects on the ground, which is exactly what local officials want to focus on this year.

Kelley said that although projects such as the Red Hill Bay and the Species Conservation Projects are a good start they only make sense if they are part of a larger restoration plan.

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

In addition to the presentation by Kelley and Cordova, the two representatives of the region at the state level, Sen. Ben Hueso and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, also put emphasis on the important role the SWRCB needed to take.

Hueso thanked the board for its continued involvement in recent months to help save the Salton Sea and although there has been progress made, he called for a more specific plan of action from coming from the state level.

“We need to establish a plan of action through which we make the necessary investment. We need to work with you to put the necessary funding to this effort to allow everyone to be successful,” Hueso said. “We are all in this together and are ready to work toward something.”

He added that he felt this was the beginning of the solution for the restoration efforts.

On the other hand, Garcia echoed Kelley and Cordova’s concerns of the health hazards the sea can have on the people of Imperial and Coachella valleys but also pondered on what sort of environment would be inherited to future generations.

“There has been a lack of serious commitment from different agencies a true commitment needs to be reflected in the governor’s budget,” Garcia said. “We need to layout the expectations with timeframes and execute the short term projects that focus on improving public health and begin a conversation on what the medium and long-term goals are.”

Kelley also took the time to praise the work that Wilcox has done in the few months on his new position and said that despite all the people he has around them it is crucial that the support he receives comes from people with decision making authority and who have a budget to work with.

Billion-dollar question

Despite the support shown by the board in stepping up the restoration, the elephant in the room in the discussion was how to pay for it.

Local officials have stated from the beginning that unequivocally the restoration of the sea is the financial responsibility of the state of California.

“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 also serves on the Salton Sea task force. “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 ideas that we might be pursuing.”

Garcia said that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget, which is expected to be unveiled in the next few days, will demonstrate the level of commitment from the state.

Some funding for the restoration of the Salton Sea is expected to come out of the governor’s budget but no one really knows how much will be allocated to the restoration efforts. The water board indicated that once it knows what it has to work with it will reconvene with the stakeholders to start planning how those funds will be used.

The lack of action in the past has been because of the high estimates that projected that up to $9 billion could be needed for the restoration. Kelley said that he was concerned that remains to be the case regarding the state’s approach for finding a solution.

“You can’t deal with this kind of problem on the cheap. My concern is that we’re still trying to do that,” Kelley said.

Other issues

Assistant Secretary for the Natural Resources Agency Bruce Wilcox addressed the board on what the agency and the task force are doing. One of the key elements that he emphasized is to have a better outreach to keep the communities in the area informed.

He said that the task force wants to meet in the Salton Sea area in the future and could be as early as February. The goal is to provide the public with updates on what is being done and also gather input from the locals who are the most affected by the receding of the lake.

Wilcox and the task force are working along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on creating a plan of action for Salton Sea restoration that he stated is most likely to be ready to be in about a month.

He also told the board that the task force is working on getting a website done to allow public to know who is on the task force and where the meetings will be happening in the future.

A few different non-governmental organizations also had the opportunity to chip in the conversation.

Sarah Friedman, a representative for the Sierra Club told the board that the further development of geothermal energy around the Salton Sea has to be part of the equation in any restoration plan.

“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,” Friedman said.

One of the recommendations that was made that will be enacted moving forward is to include the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission as part of the team as they have an important role to play in the advancement of renewable energy development around the Salton Sea.

“They haven’t been part of the conversation and they have to be involved,” Ryan Kelley said.