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As the Salton Sea faced the threat of ecological collapse, some local residents and environmentalists advocated a radical treatment for the deteriorating lake: a large infusion of ocean water.

By moving desalinated seawater across the desert, they say, California could reverse the decline and rise in salinity of its largest lake and restore its once-thriving ecosystem. Without water, they argue, the lake will continue to shrink and its receding shorelines will expose growing areas of dry lake bed that spew out dangerous dust and greenhouse gases.

“The Salton Sea is drying up, and so is water for our people and our environment,” Salton City nonprofit EcoMedia Compass reports on its website. “Let’s ensure the sustainability of water resources for future generations and import water from the ocean.”

But proponents of ocean water extraction were dealt a major blow when a state-appointed panel of experts rejected the idea after a year-long review.

A seven-member panel reviewed proposals that would desalinate Mexico’s seawater in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of ​​Cortez, and ship it north across the border. The commission concluded that California should not pursue such a plan, citing costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, damage to the coastal environment and construction timelines that would take years before the water reaches the lake.

“It’s impossible,” said Brent Haddad, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the group’s research team. “The committee believes that the state should no longer consider importing water from the Sea of ​​Cortez to restore the Salton Sea.”

The group presented its findings in two reports and discussed the results in a virtual meeting last week.

The analysis drew condemnation from advocates of seawater imports, who argued it was deeply flawed and appeared aimed at eliminating the concept.

“It’s a travesty,” said Tom Sefton, president of the EcoMedia Compass board. “They have essentially found a way to exclude ocean water imports from consideration indefinitely.”

Sefton, who runs a small demonstration project for desalination in the Salton Sea, presented one of the proposals the group considered. He strongly disagreed with the group’s approach and cost estimatecalling the findings “totally bogus.”

The debate reflects a long-standing and entrenched divide over how California should deal with the worsening Salton-Sea as the state adapts to recurring droughts compounded by the effects of climate change.

Rejecting the idea of ​​laying pipelines into ocean water, the commission instead recommended that the state negotiate with the Imperial Irrigation District to pay farmers who voluntarily leave their farmland dry and pump water into the lake.

Such an approach, which has not yet been endorsed by government officials, will face major obstacles. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are already under pressure to reduce water use as part of an effort to prevent Colorado River reservoirs from falling to dangerously low levels.

Historic river shortages amid a 23-year megadrought exacerbated by climate change have water agencies scrambling to cut water to shore up Lake Mead, which holds dwindling supplies for California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

The Salton Sea covers more than 300 square miles in Imperial and Riverside counties. It sits nearly 240 feet below sea level in the Salton Trough, which has moved between being filled with Colorado River water and drying up over the millennia.

A flood river filled the Salton Sea from 1905 to 1907; since then, it has been supported by water flowing from farms in the Imperial Valley. The lake has been shrinking since the early 2000s, when the Imperial Irrigation District began selling some water to growing urban areas under an agreement with agencies in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.

The lake level has dropped about 11 feet since 2003. Its water is now about twice as salty as the ocean’s, and continues to become saltier with evaporation, which has led to dramatic declines in fish and bird populations.

Along dry coasts, windblown dust contributes to harmful air pollution in low-income, predominantly Latino communities where people often suffer from asthma.

California’s 10-year plan for the Salton Sea, released in 2017, called for the construction of about 30,000 acres of dust control and wetlands projects around the lake by 2028.

After years of delays, workers with heavy equipment were moving soil on the south side of the lake as part of a 4,110-acre project aimed at suppressing dust and creating habitat for fish and birds.

In October 2021 government officials appointed a group of experts, including water researchers and engineers, to study water import concepts. The panel reviewed 18 ideas and found that all but three had “fatal flaws.”

In its summary report, the group said that because the three proposals were similar, they were combined into a single concept. This involved building a large desalination plant in the Gulf of California, dumping the by-product brine into the sea and sending the fresh water 190 miles north through two steel pipelines. The concept also called for the construction of a desalination plant in the Salton Sea to gradually reduce the salt content.

The commission estimated the initial cost at $65.7 billion, or $78.4 billion depending on the scenario, and rejected the concept “based on its high cost, environmental damage, minimal benefits to Mexico” and other concerns.

The commission rejected an alternative that would have desalinated water in Mexico and exchanged the resulting fresh water for water from the Colorado River.

Instead, he recommended the state work with the Imperial Irrigation District to develop a “voluntary compensated hunting program” in which farmers would be paid to reduce their water use. The goal would be to provide 145,000 acre-feet of water per year for the lake — more than 5% of the 2.6 million acre-feet the IID diverts annually.

This approach also involves the construction of a desalination plant that will take water from the Salton Sea and return fresh water. The brine will drain into evaporation ponds, and the dried salt will be loaded onto trains and sent to landfills.

The panel estimated the initial cost at $17 billion.

Robert Glennon, a member of the commission and a law professor at the University of Arizona, said the idea of ​​importing water from the Gulf of California or the Pacific Ocean “didn’t make sense when there were alternatives for a fraction of the money, without damaging the environment, and it could be implemented much sooner.”

Glennon said speed is critical to keeping the lake’s salinity from reaching “horrendous levels.” He said the group’s recommendations would achieve salinity levels that would allow fish to survive and birds to return, and would include an “aggressive dust suppression campaign.”

State officials said they will consider the group’s findings as they prepare a long-term plan for the Salton Sea.

During the virtual meeting, Haddad said the group recommends “stabilizing the sea at a smaller but still large volume and focusing on rapidly reducing its salinity.”

As he spoke, the Zoom chat was filled with angry criticism. One listener wrote: “This is the worst possible solution.”

Some argued that the idea of ​​asking farmers to steam their fields was unrealistic given the shortage of the Colorado River. Haddad replied that it would be a “compromise.” He said the state will decide and negotiate with the Imperial Irrigation District.

Kerry Morrison, founder of EcoMedia Compass and a longtime advocate of importing ocean water, said the initial proposals were much cheaper than the one the group analyzed.

“You haven’t considered the economic feasibility of this,” Morrison told the panel. “We know it’s doable.”

Sefton, whose proposal was rejected, asked why the team chose expensive pipelines instead of a canal, which would have been much more economical. Sephton accused the commission of trying to make importing water impractical and expensive, saying it had created a concept that was “designed to fail”.

“They were over-pricing everything,” Sefton said.

Jenny E. Ross, a research affiliate at the Stout Research Center, said the group recommended a “seriously flawed plan” that has not been previously published and that would rely on “unsustainable use of Colorado River water.”

Ross said the plan would shrink the Salton Sea to a fraction of its size, exacerbate hazardous dust and cause large greenhouse gas emissions. In her study, Ross said the collapse of the ecosystem and the exposure of vast areas of the lakebed, including sediment filled with organic matter from decomposing aquatic life, would likely lead to a significant increase in carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

She said restoring the Salton Sea and revitalizing its ecosystem would have a positive effect by sequestering and storing carbon.

“Importing ocean water is the only approach that can truly achieve true long-term recovery of the Salton Sea,” Ross said in an email. She said it’s also the only plan that would use a “guaranteed water supply independent of the Colorado River, which would allow a restored lake to be immune to the future vagaries of climate change and increased aridification.”

Offers for pumping ocean water between the Gulf of California and the Salton Sea have been discussed since the 1990s, initially to address salinity increases.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the Salton Sea was much less salty, it attracted fishing, boating and water skiing tourists. But by the 1990s, the eutrophic conditions of the lake led to the mass death of fish and birds. In recent years, increased salinity has further limited food sources for birds.

Some remnants of the lake’s heyday, including old buildings and docks, stand abandoned near its receding shores.

Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, has long criticized the water import proposals, which he says “distract from the real work at hand, which is project implementation.”

After years of delays, the state’s efforts are “starting to move in the right direction,” Cohen said, thanks to funding and projects that will create thousands of acres of habitat and suppress dust.

He expects the Salton Sea threshold farmland proposal won’t happen at a time when California is already debating the need for significant reductions in Colorado River water. But the group’s findings, he said, help “focus attention on the importance of near-term potential efforts” that can rely on available water supplies.

“We need to deal with the aridification of the West, where there is simply less water,” Cohen said. “We need to live within our means. We cannot rely on pumping large amounts of water from somewhere else.”

Editorial: Salton Sea is a disaster in the making. California is doing nothing to stop it

Los Angeles Times 2022.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Citation: As Salton Sea Threatens Ecological Collapse, Ocean Water Rescue Plan Rejected (2022, October 6) Retrieved October 6, 2022, from ecological-collapse -ocean.html

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