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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding.

Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy?

This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority (SSA) to lead a restoration funding and feasibility study, in consultation with the (State of California Natural Resources) agency. This bill would also require the secretary (of the CNRA) to seek input from the authority with regard to specified components of restoration of the Salton Sea. By imposing duties on a local joint-powers authority (the SSA), the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

In plainer language: The bill is intended to identify strategies to address the serious environmental and social challenges facing the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California due to the Salton Sea’s tenuous future.

The most immediate result of the bill was the earmarking of $2 million in the 2014 state budget to fund a study to determine appropriate restorative actions.

“AB 71 was successful, because after it was passed, we managed to get funding, which was a really good feeling,” remarked Roger Shintaku, executive director of the SSA. “We fought long and hard to get the funding.”

Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency, is the point-person on the state’s involvement in the Salton Sea campaign.

“We’ve gone into contract with the Salton Sea Authority and their sub-contractor. … The study itself is very promising,” said Bright. “There’s an idea out there that we can encourage the development of a lot of geothermal and renewable energy resources around the Salton Sea, and that development can bring economic prosperity, and also provide revenues for further restoration activities.”

How would the revenue created by such development flow back into the restoration effort?

“More than 91 percent of the land under the sea basin is owned either by the Imperial Irrigation District or the United States government, so they would probably do some kind of leasing with development companies,” said Bright. “But one of the specific task orders in the study is to look at how you actually get revenue.”

Shintaku’s SSA is supervising the creation of an action plan as the first phase of the study.

“The first step in the feasibility study is to take the plan and make it more detailed and goal-oriented,” he said. “We’ve broken down specific tasks we want to accomplish along with the schedule, because we need to finish the feasibility study by May 2016.”

Of course, revenue and cost considerations can make or break any long term plans—especially when it comes to a project as daunting as saving the Salton Sea.

“We need to examine what was laid out in the past and then try to inject the reality of today’s finances in an effort to see what we can do,” Shintaku said. “The bottom line is that we want to advance ecosystem restoration, and we want to advance any mitigation efforts, but we have to look at our own financial ability first, because we can’t really count on anyone else coming in.”

What about the state budget funds earmarked to support SSA efforts? “The state is obligated to help out,” agreed Shintaku. “At the same time, we’re looking at what we can do locally without help from the state or federal governments. We’re doing what we can to move this forward.”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence—as the Salton Sea’s water supply will soon decrease. In 2003, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State of California and the U.S. Interior Department signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which requires that annual allotments of Colorado River water are diverted into the Salton Sea. However, that agreement ends in 2017.

Can anything be done in the near term to address the other challenges linked to this looming environmental, economic and public-health crisis?

“The renewable projects themselves could be dust-storm preventers,” Bright observed. “… By this autumn, the state will begin constructing 600 to 700 acres of projects on the ground. Our focus and investment is in habitat ponds, which are really the most difficult to build. They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat. Meanwhile, (the Imperial Irrigation District) is focusing on shallow-water habitats that are slightly less challenging, but equally important.”

Curiously, there seems to be no serious discussion about delaying the QSA deadline on Colorado River-water allotments.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” said Bright. “But I don’t know if the benefits are really there, because the tipping point on the salinity of the sea is already being reached. Undoing the QSA would be a monumental feat. We’re trying to work within our current framework toward the best solution and give us some kind of pathway to the future.”

Shintaku said that no matter what is done, the Salton Sea will always be around, in one form or another.

“If nothing else happens, and there’s still agriculture in the area, there’s going to be water draining into the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question. The real question is: What kind of sea will there be?

“As we move forward after the feasibility study, we’d like to try to improve on what’s happening with the species-conservation habitat and develop projects that maintain habitats and address future concerns of dust proliferation,” he continued. “We cannot say for certain that all 365 square miles of seabed will be a dust bowl. We won’t know until the sea actually recedes. That’s another challenge for us, to develop a program that will allow us to do dust control when such conditions arise, or avoid it by keeping areas wet or planting vegetation.”

Of course, all of this work is being attempted in the midst of the worst drought California has seen in recorded history. How could this reality not serve as an impediment?

“My feeling is that it’s been helpful, because it’s put the focus on water issues in the Legislature and where we put our priorities for water,” said Bright. “So in this year’s California Water Action Plan, the Salton Sea was put in as one of the priorities. … Other water areas have definitely been impacted by the bandwidth suck of the drought, but this is probably one of the few areas that hasn’t.”

Published in Environment

When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.

The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.

But this estuary did the opposite: As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out.

“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”

Crespi was the first known European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it. Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain—all mud, tules and marsh—finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary, because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only comparable place on Earth is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.

But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.

The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians, from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve the state by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. It would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands.

But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish state officials hope to restore.

The Delta continues to confound.

Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.

They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. When the storm finally quit, and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose: It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress.

The party soon encountered a variety of branching side channels, and they could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. They took a wrong turn, but eventually got lucky and recovered their course.

Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated; occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.” Durán felt obliged to baptize both women.

Durán, who was no naturalist, does not mention any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48. Yet there are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.

Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.

The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where they spotted a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”

Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver.

But Durán and his cohorts never found the second village. And amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.

The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers—or near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years. The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen. This essay originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Published in Environment

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