Thirteen years ago, the California State Water Resources Control Board and state Legislature decided to approve the largest agriculture-to-urban transfer of water in the country. At its peak, the water transfer would move more than 367,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from farmland in the Imperial Valley to coastal urban Southern California each year. That’s enough water to supply the household needs for more than 2.2 million people for an entire year! At the time, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners – including the Pacific Institute, Sierra Club, and Audubon California – argued that any transfer had to address the environmental consequences of diverting so much water. While the transfer was necessary to create a more reliable water supply for the residents of San Diego and Palm Springs without taking that water from the fragile Bay Delta, we knew it would have an enormous impact on the Salton Sea that could not be ignored.
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The Sea (actually a saltwater lake) is fed primarily by the runoff from nearby agricultural fields. How much water flows into the Sea in any given year depends on how much water these fields receive. The transfer reduces the water to the fields by more than 300,000 acre-feet of water each year. We warned the Board that as the water level in the Sea lowered, it would expose more 70,000 acres of dusty and dry sea bed by 2047, and accelerate the path of the Salton Sea habitat toward biological collapse.
Sacrificing the Salton Sea is not an option. It provides habitat for more than 400 species of birds – approximately two-thirds of all bird species in the continental U.S. As a critical stopover on the Pacific Flyway, it is one of the most important locales for migratory birds in the Western United States. When the water transfer is operating at full capacity, these species will pay the price. The Sea’s remaining fish population will crash, eliminating food for birds – both those that live there, and those passing through. In addition, the shallow waters around the southern and northern ends of the Sea, which are important feeding and resting areas for migrating shorebirds, will disappear. With these important habitats destroyed, migratory birds will have few options to rest and feed during their migration up and down the Pacific flyway.
Less water flowing to the Sea will also create severe health issues for human residents in this region. It will leave more than 100 square miles of lakebed exposed to the wind, creating horrific dust storms to plague a region that already has the highest rates of childhood asthma in California. And because of the chemicals that agricultural run-off can carry, the problem is more than just dust. More than 650,000 people in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys will be exposed to fine dust filled with pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic pollutants. One report found that the combined impacts to wildlife habitat and public health could cost the state as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years.
The state recognized that these were all real problems that would need to be addressed, so it came up with a deal to buy everyone some time. The water board required the seller to send additional water to the Sea for 15 years to keep it from receding. In the meantime, the State of California promised to take the lead in coming up with a plan for a more sustainable Sea. More importantly, the State agreed to make sure that the impacts of the water transfer were mitigated, even if actions taken by the regional water agencies weren’t enough to fully address the impacts. With those commitments in place, the water transfer went forward, and the clock started counting down toward the end of supplied water in 2017.
Today the Salton Sea is about two and a half years away from disaster, with no plan in place. Since 2002, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners have been working to encourage state and local authorities to create a solution. We have testified at hearings and workshops, written letters, and generally served as a constant reminder of the deal that was struck in order for California to have a more reliable water supply. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made, it has not been nearly enough. Now in the midst of a devastating drought, California finds itself standing at a precipice: If they do not take action soon, the Salton Sea will begin to unravel at the end of 2017.
As the deadline for the Sea looms, in the last three months, Defenders has had the opportunity to raise our concerns in public hearings and in letters to the state. We have been urging the State of California, in collaboration with local interests and the environmental community, to develop a coordinated, holistic plan within the next six months to address the air, wildlife, and water quality problems at the Salton Sea, as well as a sound financial plan to pay for these mitigation actions. For more than decade, California has had the benefit of more water in its urban areas without impact to the Salton Sea. Now, time is running out. The State of California has to decide whether it intends to prevent or invite an environmental and public health disaster. Either way, the clock is ticking.