On Sept. 30 the Independent Review Panel set up by California’s Salton Sea Management Program issued its final report. SSMP charged the panel with evaluating proposals to import water to the Salton Sea. In the end, the panel did not endorse any of the 18 proposals.
The panel found that the key issue is not the size of the sea, it’s the salinity, which is nearly twice that of the ocean and getting worse. A smaller sea can achieve the principal objectives of salinity reduction, environmental restoration and regional air quality improvement. First, the state should embark as soon as possible on designing and building a desalination plant at the sea. Second, the state should collaborate with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) on a program to acquire water for dedication to the sea. Finally, the state needs to finance an aggressive program to manage playa dust, expanding on its initial programs.
IID’s farmers would be asked to provide replacement water for the salty brine removed while the sea is being desalinated. As the sea’s water quality improves, the amount of replacement water needed would decline. In the early years, roughly 140,000 acre-feet per year of applied water would be needed, less in rainy years, and declining over time. Without this, the plan could proceed, but the sea would reach a smaller ultimate volume if the brine water isn’t replaced.
IID, Imperial County and its residents have much to gain from implementing the panel’s recommendations. The impacts of air pollution are a shared local burden. Recreational opportunities from a restored sea, from bird watching to fishing, would mostly benefit residents, although the local tourist economy would also grow.
The first step for IID is to reinvigorate its voluntary, compensated fallowing program, this time paid for by the state. The program can be improved by including seasonal fallowing. For example, summer alfalfa has the lowest crop yield for applied water – what better water to transfer to the sea? The state should also compensate affected third parties, such as displaced farmworkers, ag-related businesses and Imperial County itself for lost taxes.
A fallowing program that includes seasonal fallowing offers the district the tools it needs to help stabilize the sea, restore the Pacific flyway, improve the local tourist economy and maintain its position as one of the world’s preeminent food-producing regions. Combined with desalination and playa protection, the Salton Sea desalination-plus-fallowing program offers a higher quality of life to the region for decades to come.
Robert Glennon is a Regents Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona College of Law. He was a member of the Independent Review Panel established by the Salton Sea Management Program to evaluate proposals to import water to the Sea. His email [email protected].
Brent Haddad is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He served as Principal Investigator on the Independent Review Panel process to evaluate water importation options to restore the Salton Sea. His email is [email protected].
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