November 29, 2011

Finding a fix for dying Salton Sea

After years of inaction by state, lawmaker wants to put regional group at helm

Pelicans fly to Mullet Island, one of the four Salton Buttes, small volcanoes on the southern San Andreas Fault, after sunset on July 2 near Calipatria. Scientists say Mullet Island, the only place for many thousands of island-nesting birds to breed at the Salton Sea, will become vulnerable to attacks by predators such as raccoons and coyotes if the water level drops just a couple more feet. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Marcel Honoré
The Desert Sun

NORTH SHORE — As state lawmakers held their first summit in more than four years on the looming death of the Salton Sea, Sonia Herbert gazed out the window at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club marina, where squawking seabirds swooped across the glassy sea surface, fishing for tilapia.

Like most of the 60 people who attended Monday's hearing, Herbert, who has lived in Bombay Beach since the 1970s, fears the worst: that time is running out on efforts to repair the sea and sustain its wildlife, and that overwhelming public health and economic crises will follow.

“All we've seen is studies, studies, studies and nothing has been done,” a visibly frustrated Herbert told Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and two Assembly budget committee members. “What's going to happen if we don't do something?”

The state remains broke, and its preferred $9 billion sea restoration plan has languished since 2007.

Sticker shock over the restoration cost has led to political paralysis, but Pérez, a Coachella Democrat whose district includes the sea, has called its restoration his top priority for the rest of his legislative tenure.

At the hearing, which Pérez's office organized, he listened to county supervisors, residents and environmental advocates call for the state to relinquish control and to let locals settle on the best plan to restore the sea and the best way to pay for it.

“The sea needs help and it needs it now. The answer isn't big brother riding to the rescue, because he's not coming. There is no rescue,” Imperial County Supervisor Gary Wyatt told Pérez and two other Assembly members, Republican Brian Jones of Santee and Democrat Richard Gordon of Menlo Park.

“We need to drive this train,” said Wyatt, quoting longtime Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who died in 2009.

Wyatt and others pushed public-private partnerships on new geothermal and solar energy projects at the sea as a realistic way to tap dollars for Salton Sea restoration.

Wyatt proposed taking a 7,000-acre former military test site at the sea's south shore, now controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and converting it into a renewable energy depot that he said could provide 700 megawatts of power and produce at least $40 million a year in restoration funds.

Unlike redevelopment funds, that money would be exempt from state seizure, Wyatt said after the meeting.

“The interest is here, not there,” Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said, referring to Sacramento. “What we need is the authority. If we fix this sea… the economic advantages to this area (are) nearly unlimited.”

Pérez said he hoped the hearing would help drum up support in the Legislature for his AB 939 bill, a proposal to switch the authority from the state's Salton Sea Restoration Council — a body that has never met — and place it in the hands of the local Salton Sea Authority, a joint-powers authority of the local counties and local water districts, along with some state presence.

“I'm optimistic that we can find a way if we work together and there's a political will from all levels of government including grassroots,” Pérez said. “Part of the reason why we have not been able to move forward is we're all moving in so many different directions. We need to find consensus to what the issues of the Salton Sea are.”

As runoff from irrigation and other water transfers evaporate, the Salton Sea's salinity has risen while its mass has shrunk. By the end of this decade, its retreat will be even more dramatic.

Created by flooding in 1905 and without a new source of water to replenish it, California's largest lake will grow uninhabitable to fish and the thousands of migratory birds that feed on them.

The exposed lakebed and the dust it generates could be disastrous in an area that already has one of the nation's highest rates for youth asthma, officials say. It also would damage agriculture and tourism.

State budget analysts at the hearing Monday reported that tens of millions of dollars in state bond funds from Propositions 50 and 84 have been spent on proposals for the sea's multi-billion-dollar fix, though exactly where the money went wasn't made clear.

“We've spent more than half our bond money … We don't have much to show for it, frankly,” said Kimberley Delfino, California program director of the national nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife.

“This is shameful and frightening,” Delfino said. “When you've lost 95 to 98 percent of the wetlands in California, the birds don't have any other place to go. The situation at the Salton Sea is grim and the stakes are high. We need a new governance structure, now. There isn't a lot of time left.”

As for the immediate next step, Pérez said he hopes for a meeting between Defenders of Wildlife, the Salton Sea Authority, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, and other stakeholders.

“The sea still has its strong supporters, fighters and believers,” Wyatt said. “There are ways to make the revenues happen.”