SACRAMENTO — The federal government announced Monday it will spend $250 million over four years on cleanup and environmental restoration work around a dried-up lake in southern California fed by the depleted Colorado River.
The future of the Salton Sea, and who is financially responsible for it, has been a key question in discussions about how to prevent a crisis in the Colorado River. The lake was formed in 1905 when the river overflowed, creating a resort destination that slowly turned into an environmental disaster as water levels dropped, exposing residents to harmful dust and reducing pollution. wildlife habitat.
The lake is largely fed by runoff from farms in California’s Imperial Valley, which use Colorado River water to grow many of the country’s winter vegetables as well as forage crops like alfalfa. As farmers reduce their water use, fewer flows flow into the lake. California has said it will only reduce its dependence on the overused river if the federal government releases funds to mitigate the effects of dwindling water flowing into the sea.
“It’s kind of a pivot for action that we need to see on the Colorado River,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources. “Finally, we can all agree that we cannot leave the Salton Sea on the cutting room floor, we cannot take these conservation measures – these extraordinary measures – at the expense of these residents .”
The deal announced Monday must be approved by the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of water from the Colorado River. The board of directors of the water entity will take up the matter on Tuesday.
District general manager and board member JB Hamby applauded the deal on Monday.
“The collaboration occurring at the Salton Sea between water agencies and state, federal and tribal governments is a model of effective cooperation that the Colorado River Basin sorely needs,” Hamby said in a statement. .
The $250 million will come from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which set aside $4 billion to stave off the worst effects of the drought in the western United States.
Most of the money depends on the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District meeting their commitments to reduce their own use of water from the river. Both have submitted proposals to reduce their use for payment under a new federal program.
The quarter-billion dollars will go largely to bolstering and accelerating existing state projects designed to reduce the negative environmental impact of the drying up of the lake bed. The state has committed nearly $583 million to offshore projects, including dust suppression and habitat restoration. An ongoing project aims to create wetlands and ponds that will keep dust from blowing into the air while creating safe spaces for fish and birds, according to the state.
The deal comes as the US Department of the Interior and the seven states that depend on the river – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – scramble to prevent the worst effects of the drought in course and historical overuse of the river. Lakes Powell and Mead, the main reservoirs that store water from rivers and provide hydroelectricity in the West, are only about a quarter full.
After months of unsuccessful negotiations over an agreement to drastically reduce water use, the federal government said in October it would pay farmers and cities to reduce activities such as leaving fields untouched. planted or cover the channels to prevent water from seeping into the ground. Proposals were due earlier this month. Meanwhile, the Home Office has moved to unilaterally revise guidelines that govern when water shortages are declared, a move that could force states to cut further.
The Salton Sea, meanwhile, became its own political hot spot in October when then-reelection senator Mark Kelly from Arizona urged the federal government to withhold all environmental cleanup money unless California won’t agree to give up more water. This drew criticism that he was using communities already suffering from poor air quality as bargaining chips.
The deal marks a good step forward, but key details still need to be fleshed out, said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California. He fears that $250 million is not enough to mitigate all the damage already done at sea.
“It’s a big step forward, but I think we need a lot more,” he said. “We need to keep discussing water sustainability in the region.”
Generally speaking, he wants to see a fairer distribution of the region’s water supplies and hopes that the Salton Sea will get a guaranteed minimum amount of water even if overall usage declines.