A history of broken promises 1

A history of broken promises

By Sammy Roth, Photos by Zoë Meyers, Jay Calderon
June 9, 2017

It’s been 14 years since California lawmakers pledged to fix the Salton Sea — but so far, they haven’t done much of anything. Here’s a timeline of what’s gone wrong since 2003, from the state’s failed $8.9-billion restoration plan to the many politicians who said they’d solve the problem.

Sept. 29, 2003

Gov. Gray Davis signs the Salton Sea Restoration Act, which says 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 that ecosystem.” The bill also establishes the Salton Sea Restoration Fund, although it doesn’t put any money in it.

Oct. 2, 2003

Now that California has promised to restore the Salton Sea, the Imperial Irrigation District approves the Quantification Settlement Agreement in a 3-2 vote, committing to send increasing amounts of Colorado River water to San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. The district had previously rejected the QSA, worried it would accelerate the Salton Sea’s decline.

Feb. 27, 2004

State officials announce they will prepare an environmental impact report “for the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and preservation of its fish and wildlife resources,” as directed by the Legislature. They promise to complete the report by December 2006.

Nov. 7, 2006

California voters approve Proposition 84, a $5.4-billion water bond that includes $47 million for the Salton Sea. A decade later, the money is still being spent. It’s been going toward permitting and construction plans for the Species Conservation Habitat, a deep-water habitat project by the lake’s southern shore. The money will ultimately fund construction as well.

The sun rises over farm fields in the Imperial Valley, Thursday on Jan. 12, 2017.

Zoë Meyers/The Desert Sun


The Imperial Irrigation District sends 50,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to the San Diego County Water Authority, as obligated under the water transfer deal. The district makes that water available by paying farmers to fallow their fields. The 50,000 acre-feet otherwise would have irrigated Imperial Valley farms, and a large portion would have drained into the sea.

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May 25, 2007

After three years of work, state officials release their Salton Sea restoration plan, estimating its cost at $8.9 billion. California Secretary of Resources Mike Chrisman describes the plan as “a starting point for Salton Sea restoration that is adaptable, flexible, sustainable, and functions under a wide variety of conditions” — but already, there are concerns over the cost.

Nov. 8, 2007

Congress approves the Water Resources Development Act. A provision added by Sen. Barbara Boxer authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to spend up to $30 million on Salton Sea projects — but the feds don’t appropriate any money until eight years later in 2015, after the Obama administration includes $200,000 for a Salton Sea study in its budget request.

Jan. 24, 2008

California’s influential Legislative Analyst’s Office gives lawmakers a report on the $8.9-billion Salton Sea plan, but it doesn’t endorse the plan. Instead, the office calls for lawmakers to consider the state’s $14.5-billion deficit before embarking on any expensive fixes.

Sept. 5, 2008

State officials outline plans for the “Species Habitat Conservation” pilot project during a public meeting in Palm Desert. The project involves building 2,400 acres of ponds on exposed lakebed. Officials say the first 800 acres could be ready by 2012, but an environmental analysis isn’t finalized until 2013. As of mid-2017, the project still hasn’t started construction.

Sept. 27, 2008

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a bill written by Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, designed to speed up the allocation of Proposition 84 money to the Salton Sea. But the legislation doesn’t commit the state to the comprehensive $8.9-billion restoration plan.

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A weathered sign for commercial real estate at the Riverside County community of North Shore along the Salton Sea.

Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

Dec. 11, 2008

Frustrated by a lack of progress, Salton Sea Authority members begin discussing private funding for restoration projects. The idea is to allow investors to reap profits from the residential and commercial developments that could spring up along a restored lake. In 2016, eight years later, Riverside County officials start discussing a similar funding plan.

Sept. 25, 2010

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a bill — approved by large majorities in the Senate and Assembly — establishing the Salton Sea Restoration Council, which is supposed to oversee Salton Sea efforts. The bill requires the new agency to “report to the Governor and the Legislature with a recommended Salton Sea restoration plan” by June 30, 2013.

Jan. 5, 2012

Gov. Jerry Brown proposes eliminating the Salton Sea Restoration Council — which has no funding and has never held a meeting — as a cost-cutting measure. It’s the second time Brown has asked state lawmakers to disband the council, and this time they agree.

Sept. 28, 2013

Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill requiring the California Natural Resources Agency to work with the local Salton Sea Authority on restoration. The bill’s author, Assembly member V. Manuel Pérez, says the legislation “ensures local participation in Salton Sea restoration and assures funding for a feasibility study that will help to identify fundable restoration alternatives.”

Oct. 1, 2013

The leader of the California Senate, Sacramento Democrat Darrell Steinberg, tours energy facilities near the Salton Sea, including geothermal and solar plants. State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, says Steinberg’s visit matters: “Very few people in Sacramento understand the problems with the Salton Sea. Today is important for getting Sacramento to understand.”

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Nov. 21, 2013

California’s State Auditor releases a report chiding lawmakers for failing to fulfill their 10-year-old promise to restore the Salton Sea. The auditor writes that California “agreed to assume sole responsibility for payment of the costs for environmental mitigation.”


The Imperial Irrigation District sends 100,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to San Diego County and 26,000 acre-feet to the Coachella Valley Water District, as its obligations under the water transfer deal ramp up. Most of that water comes from fallowing; the rest comes from on-farm conservation measures, such as switching from flood irrigation to drop irrigation.

Jan. 9, 2014

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal includes $400,000 for Salton Sea restoration.

Nov. 18, 2014

Frustrated by the continued lack of progress, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) files a petition with the State Water Resources Control Board, seeking to make continued water transfers to the Coachella Valley and San Diego County contingent on the state fulfilling its promise to restore the Salton Sea. Basically, IID threatens to blow up the water transfer deal.

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May 14, 2015

In his annual budget revision, Gov. Jerry Brown proposes the formation of a Salton Sea Task Force to expedite construction projects. Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, applauds the proposal but cautions, “Too many task forces and not enough action.”

July 18, 2015

The Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County release a $3.15-billion Salton Sea restoration plan, which focuses on dust suppression and habitat at the lake’s southern end. It’s the first comprehensive proposal since the $8.9-billion plan that died in the Legislature.

Sept. 2, 2015

Gov. Jerry Brown names Bruce Wilcox the state’s first Salton Sea czar.

Sept. 24, 2015

The Salton Sea Authority reviews a draft of the SSWIFT plan, which would create a 36-square-mile “perimeter lake” around the current shoreline of the Salton Sea. The plan would suppress dust and establish some permanent habitat, at an estimated cost of $960 million.

Sept. 24, 2015

California’s Little Hoover Commission, an independent watchdog agency, publishes a report urging state officials to “take immediate action on the Salton Sea.” The report warns of a “public health catastrophe” that threatens the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

Nov. 5, 2015

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service breaks ground on a first-of-its-kind restoration project at Red Hill Bay, on the Salton Sea’s southern shore. The project will create wetlands on 420 acres of exposed lakebed, providing migratory bird habitat and suppressing dust emissions.

Jan. 7, 2016

In his annual budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown proposes $80 million for the Salton Sea — the state’s largest-ever allocation, although a small percentage of what’s needed to avert disaster at California’s largest lake. The Legislature ultimately approves the money.

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Feb. 9, 2016

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announces it will spend $3 million building a 31-acre wetland south of the Salton Sea in 2016, up from its normal annual spending of $300,000.

Aug. 18, 2016

Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has served in Congress since 1993, calls for quicker action at the Salton Sea. “No more excuses,” Boxer says. She retired a few months later.

Aug. 31, 2016

Speaking at Lake Tahoe, President Barack Obama pledges $30 million in federal funding for the Salton Sea. He says, “We’re going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it’s too late, and that’s going to help a lot of folks all across the West.” Now that Donald Trump is president, the fate of the $30 million is unclear.

March 16, 2017

California releases a 10-year Salton Sea plan, projected to cost $383 million. Gone is the focus on “restoring” the Salton Sea, which state and local officials have long since agrees is infeasible. Instead, the state’s plan focuses on limiting the damage. If fully funded, it would cover 29,800 acres with “constructed habitat” but leave more than 30,000 acres exposed.


The Imperial Irrigation District is sending 100,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to San Diego County and 45,000 acre-feet to the Coachella Valley this year, as its obligations continue to increase. By 2026, the district will send a total of 303,000 acre-feet annually to those urban areas — enough water to supply 600,000 typical Coachella Valley households for a year.


The Imperial Irrigation District is also sending the final mitigation water from the Colorado River to the Salton Sea this year. Starting in 2018, the lake will shrink more quickly. It’s projected that nearly 100 square miles of dry lakebed will be exposed within a decade.

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