The Salton Sea is evaporating, exposing deadly toxins—and this has been happening for decades.

Eastern Coachella Valley residents know it; they’ve lived with the resulting airborne particulate pollution and the effects it has had on their health. Migratory birds know it; environmentalists are concerned that additional bird and fish species will join those that have already disappeared from the region. And government officials know it; they’ve been struggling to come up with affordable and practical strategies to manage the sea’s degradation.

These strategies have focused on restoring biologically important habitats and suppressing dangerous dust emissions from the exposed lakebed, which has absorbed pesticides from the surrounding agricultural fields and contaminants from the industrial chemical runoff flowing north from Mexico via the New River. However, there is finally some good news to report.

On Jan. 13, the California Natural Resources Agency announced, as called for in the 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan, that construction had begun on the Phase 1 Species Conservation Habitat, which represents “the state’s first large-scale project to create habitat and reduce exposed lakebed around the sea.” Around 4,000 acres will be included in the project.

“Now that we’ve broken ground, I’m really looking forward to visible progress at the sea,” said CNRA Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “We have a really good contractor in place in Kiewit. They have a very strong track record of delivering projects and delivering them on time. We have the funding lined up, and it’s going to be exciting to see a project that is (restoring) the mouth of the New River at the sea—obviously covering over dust and seabed, but also providing habitat.”

A lack of funding has delayed restoration efforts for years. However, in 2018, voters approved Proposition 68, which included $206 million in restoration and mitigation funds for the Salton Sea.

Other attempts to get more funding have failed. In 2020, a much-heralded climate-resilience bond, backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would have directed an additional $220 million to the sea. However, it failed to make it onto last November’s ballot. The federal government has not yet dedicated any significant funding—but that’s not due to a lack of effort on the part of Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz. His latest attempt is HR 491. If passed, the bill Ruiz is co-sponsoring would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to create a California New River restoration program, to coordinate funding and cleanup of the river. While the effort would not directly address the environmental decline at the Salton Sea itself, it would help by decreasing pollution in the river whose flow ends in the sea.

The Independent asked Crowfoot, who was appointed to his position in January 2019, what other difficulties he’s experienced while working toward the implementation of the Salton Sea Management Plan’s first phase.

“One of the larger challenges with projects at the Salton Sea is getting all the necessary approvals,” Crowfoot said. “The ownership of the Salton Sea is actually like a checkerboard. We—the state and our agency—are responsible for stabilizing 30,000 acres of habitat on the sea over the next 10 years. That’s (part of) our management plan, but it’s not state land. So it took a while to work with the Imperial Irrigation District to break through a very long difference (of opinion) in terms of division of the project, and questions about the impacts on local agriculture. When I came in, my first trip outside of Sacramento was down to El Centro to meet with the new general manager and chief executive of IID, Henry Martinez. He and I basically agreed that this project was just too important to the sea. We broke through what had been some longstanding questions around the project. So, to me, what’s surprising is how long it takes to plan and permit one of these projects. But now that we know, we have to just push ourselves harder to move every aspect of these forward.”

According to the 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan, some 48,900 acres of sea are projected to dry up and be newly exposed over that decade—while just 29,800 acres are slated to be treated.

Another benefit of the Species Conservation Habitat project is jobs. Kiewit, the project developer, predicts that some 3,000 work positions will be created over the multi-year life of the project, and that many of those will be filled by residents of Riverside and Imperial counties. Some of those jobs may be filled rather soon.

“Due to the pandemic restrictions and the phasing in and scaling up of construction work over the coming months, Kiewit plans to ramp up outreach efforts to local communities in the second quarter (of) 2021, when the design work has advanced,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, the CNRA’s deputy secretary of communications. “Positions to be filled locally include equipment operators, laborers, truck drivers, electricians and carpenters.”

The email went on to state: “Because Kiewit is a union contractor and signatory to a master labor agreement, Kiewit intends to leverage these relationships to increase local hiring opportunities. In addition, Kiewit will work with local organizations such as churches, community-based organizations, Rotary Club, Kiwanis and Elks Lodge to get the word out that Kiewit is hiring locally.”

Still, time’s a-wastin’. It took 19 months to go from the launch of the SCH project, through the developer search, and to the ground-breaking.

“As my colleagues know, I bring what I call a constructive impatience to the work,” Crowfoot said. “And in this case, we were able to get a design-build contract for the work, so that’s actually going to speed up the construction. But I’m the first person to say that one, we haven’t made enough progress over the last couple of decades, and two, we need to move as quickly as possible. I totally understand that local residents in the region are skeptical about efforts to stabilize the sea, because they haven’t seen improvements on the ground. So that’s what we’re really focused on is getting these projects going, visibly and actually making a difference.”

Another reality check: According to the 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan, which was adopted in 2018, some 48,900 acres of sea are projected to dry up and be newly exposed over that decade—while just 29,800 acres are slated to be treated. In other words, even if all goes according to plan, the threat to human and environmental health that the sea represents to all of Southern California will continue to worsen.

“I think we all have to be honest and realistic about the fact that the sea is receding,” Crowfoot said. “We, here at the state, are going to do as much as we can to address the exposed lakebed. The 30,000 acres that were identified (for restoration and mitigation efforts in) the 10-year SSMP were established before I came into this role. I think it’s a very ambitious but achievable acreage goal. So, is that enough? I think we have to continuously ask ourselves: What else do we need to be doing at the Salton Sea? And that’s why, in concurrence with implementing this 10-year SSMP, we’re also developing a long-term plan for the sea.

“It’s great that 4,000 acres are being restored through this SCH project, and we’re talking about other projects, too. But what is the sea going to look like in 25 years? That’s an open question.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...