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State Water Resources Control Board Adopts Order on Long-Term Management of Salton Sea

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) recently announced that it had accepted a “landmark” agreement defining the state’s commitment to restore and manage the Salton Sea in a manner that protects public health and the critical Pacific flyway habitat. The SWRCB’s action is intended to ensure a “smaller but sustainable” Salton Sea, with the State of California serving a key role in leading and coordinating management efforts to achieve such a result.



The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and was once a very popular sport fishing and recreation destination. Roughly 35 miles long and up to 15 miles wide, the Salton Sea was formed when floodwaters flowed unchecked from the Colorado River into an ancient lakebed sitting approximately 232 feet below sea level from 1905 to 1907. Since that time, the lake has been fed primarily by agricultural drain water from the Imperial Valley. As the Salton Sea has no outlet, salts and nutrients concentrate in it. Currently, the Salton Sea has a salinity level that is 50 percent higher than the ocean.

Contributing to the importance of the Sea, the Salton Sea is also a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds, including several thousand threatened and endangered species. The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930 to preserve wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

Over the last hundred years, the Sea’s receding shoreline has developed into a significant public health risk due to, among other things, particulate dust blown from the exposed lakebed. At the same time, declining water levels have and will continue to increase the Sea’s salinity levels, threatening food sources for wildlife.


Colorado River Diversions

On October 5 1998, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) submitted a joint petition to the SWRCB relating to Colorado River diversions. After rounds of amendments, the final petition requested the long-term transfer of up to 300,000 acre-feet of water annually authorized for diversion and use from the Colorado River. The SWRCB approved the transfer in 2002. In its order, the SWRCB imposed a condition requiring salinity levels “that would have existed in the absence of the transfer” to be maintained for a period of 15 years. This condition was intended to mitigate impacts to the Sea and to provide time to study the feasibility of long-term restoration actions.


Salton Sea Restoration

In a further attempt to address issues facing the Sea, several years ago the Legislature passed the Salton Sea Restoration Act. Among other things, the act states that:


  • . . .it is the intent of the Legislature that the State of California undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the permanent protection of the wildlife dependent on the ecosystem.

To implement the Act, in May 2015 Governor Brown established the Salton Sea Task Force, which included experts from the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) and the California Environmental Protection Agency, including representatives from the SWRCB. Over the past two years, CNRA, in conjunction with these agencies and other interested parties, have prepared Phase 1 of the Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP).

Contemporaneously with the state’s efforts, in November 2014, IID file a petition with the SWRCB seeking to have the SWRCB enter an order to ensure the success of the Salton Sea restoration. In March 2017, IID filed a motion with the SWRCB seeking to have an evidentiary hearing to address its November 2014 petition. As a result of the motion, a draft stipulated order was developed for consideration by the SWRCB in September 2017.


The State Board’s Plan—A Smaller but Sustainable Sea

After several rounds of revisions and public comment, the SWRCB adopted the revised stipulation. The SWRCB’s action is important for several reasons. First, the SWRCB declared that “restoration of a smaller but sustainable Salton Sea is feasible,” and that the SWRCB would “lead and coordinate management efforts” to ensure that implementation of projects to protect or improve air and water quality and wildlife habitat will be completed in a manner that avoids the “severe consequences” associated with failing to act.

Second, the SWRCB sets additional milestones for proposed projects that seek to address public health and environmental concerns. For example, by December 31, 2018, construction of proposed habitat and dust-suppression projects must be completed on 500 acres of the exposed playa. In addition, by December 31, 2019, an additional construction of such projects must be completed on an additional 1,300 acres.

Third, the SWRCB directed the CNRA to develop subsequent ten-year phases of the SSMP, with the development of each phase “commencing no later than midway through each current phase.” Beginning with Phase II of the SSMP, CNRA is directed to complete a long-term plan by no later than December 31, 2022.

Finally, the SWRCB revised the 2002 order approving the transfer of water from the Colorado River by IID and SDCWA. Pursuant to the SWRCB’s action, mitigation measures, which were expected to terminate on December 31, 2017, will continue to proceed pursuant to the existing Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program.


Conclusion and Implications

While the Salton Sea has long been an area of concern, the SWRCB’s action may represent another example of concrete steps being taken to address these critical issues. The SWRCB’s action will likely prove to be a critical step and representation of the state’s commitment to restore and manage the Sea to protect public health and environmental concerns.

(Matt Collins, Steve Anderson)