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Progress made on state Salton Sea project as water conservation mandate poses new troubles

A new mandate on water conservation could have some major impacts on the already struggling Salton Sea.

State officials have been busy in 2022, fulfilling a promise made long ago to create wetland habitat at the southern end of the lake.

"It's extremely encouraging to see that it's already working, and we're not even done with it," said Vivien Maisonneuve, who works on the Salton Sea Program within the California Department of Water Resources.

This massive project, called the "Species Conservation Habitat Project" or SCH, covers 4,100 acres. It's the state's first large scale project here, costing $206.5 million.

"It was started for us at the south because given the depth and the very shallow area of the south, we knew that this air will be exposed first and become very emissive and therefore, impacting water quality the most," said Maisonneuve.

After a long delay, the SCH project caught back up to its planned timeline, which is now at 60% completion.

The CA Natural Resources Agency shared its progress with News Channel 3 morning anchor Angela Chen, revealing several major benchmarks it's hit, including: the completion of interception ditches built to collect water from drains, perimeter berms for habitat ponds, bird nesting and loafing islands, progress on the saline pump station which will bring lake water to the habitat ponds and dust control measures to stabilize about 500 acres of exposed lakebed.

"We have a hard time keeping all the wildlife out while we're finishing this project. They already want to use it. So the intersection ditches are already teeming [with] wildlife," said Maisonneuve.

The SCH is expected to be finished by the end of 2023.

$220 million has been devoted to the Salton Sea since 2021 in the state budget, with $40 million given last year in the 2021 - 2022 fiscal year. $100 million has been committed for the 2022 - 2023 fiscal year. Officials are still deciding how to use that money, but it'll come in handy because the future of the Salton Sea has hit another obstacle.

Southern California gets about a third of its water from the Colorado River -- a river that's been getting drier and drier.

"The hydrological models that I've seen point out that even the Colorado River, by 2045, will lose at least 35% of its water," said Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea Program Manager for California Audubon.

And the thing is, California has to share that water with six other states. Now, to deal with the water decline, the federal government is mandating that the seven states that take water from the Colorado River --  Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada -- commit to a water conservation plan.

"So that has prompted the reclamation commissioner to ask the state to either come up with a plan to reduce between two to four million acre feet of water or the federal government is going to step in and they're going to implement their own," said Ruiz.

August 14 was the deadline.

Frank Ruiz tracks the Salton Sea for California Audubon. He worries that the water conservation mandate -- while responsible -- will only fast forward the catastrophe at the sea...

"We may lose 350,000 acre feet of water flowing into the Salton Sea exacerbating the already existing condition. It's going to spike salinity at a much faster pace. It is going to continue depleting the oxygen in the water, changing the ecosystem," said Ruiz. "So the south sea is at the brink of a major ecological collapse."

If farmers have less water, they won't be able to grow as much, which means the price of crops will shoot up. Food will become more expensive. On top of that, according to Ruiz, farmers will let lands lie fallow, which will increase the amount of dust in the air.

 "If you ask the hydrologist, if you ask you know they're professionals in the area, that will tell you this is real," said Ruiz. "The water is becoming more scarce. We need to learn how to adapt." 

The state has responded to the water conservation mandate, with a full statement from the California Natural Resources Agency below:

Extremely dry conditions continue to pose challenges and impacts to California and much of the Western U.S. The Colorado River has historically provided a reliable surface water supply to California and the West through previous droughts. That situation is now changing because of the basin’s long-term drought and climate change. The local water agencies who contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for Colorado River supplies have mixed circumstances - some rely entirely on Colorado River water while others have additional sources such as the State Water Project or local supplies.

In early June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the seven basin states and water users to submit a plan for reducing use of Colorado River supplies by 2 - 4 million-acre feet (MAF) beginning in 2023 to protect critical elevations in Lakes Powell and Mead. The Colorado River Board of California has been coordinating with the local agency water contractors, who have been working constructively and collaboratively to respond to Reclamation’s request. 

The state is working to support those discussions and to help ensure that impacts to the Salton Sea are addressed in any plan developed as part of this effort.

As part of its statewide drought response activities, the state is already planning for the possibility that 2023 may be a fourth dry year. DWR will assist local agencies throughout California with the tools it has available, such as drought response and water conservation grants.

For more information about the 24-month study projections and the Colorado River cuts, we recommend reaching out to the US Bureau of Reclamation.

- Lisa Lien-Mager, CA Natural Resources Agency

News Channel 3 anchor Angela Chen has been covering the issues surrounding the Salton Sea for years, including the environmental and health aspects of the looming ecological disaster.

Check out the Emmy-award winning Troubled Waters: The Salton Sea Project

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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