For those of us living near the Salton Sea, 2020 began much like 2019. Another year has passed and promised solutions have vanished like the receding waters of the Sea itself.
We hear new assurances from the state of California that this year we will finally see progress on projects to control dust and create habitat as the Salton Sea shrinks. Meanwhile, 650,000 people that live near the sea and the hundreds of species of birds wait for even one project be completed.
The Salton Sea has been declining for years, due in large part to massive water transfers from the farms in Imperial Valley to Southern California cities. When the transfers were approved in 2003, the state of California promised it would develop and implement a plan to reduce dust emissions and offset habitat losses that would occur as the sea shrank. Almost two decades later, powerful water districts like the Metropolitan Water District and the San Diego Water Authority are getting their water, but communities at the Salton Sea have yet to receive the benefits of even a single project completed by the state to offset the transfers.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has acknowledged that the state’s lethargy is inexcusable. As a gubernatorial candidate, he asked residents near the Salton Sea to hold him accountable for his administration’s commitment to action.
While the governor’s team has improved over past efforts, one year into his term the Salton Sea continues to recede unabated, dust plumes rise, and birds disappear. We are now hearing about revised plans and new deadlines.
We are still waiting.
It does not need to be this way. When the state truly decides to meet its commitments, it can get things done quickly.
For example, in 2017, portions of the Oroville Dam spillway collapsed, threatening the homes of 200,000 people. The State of California immediately tasked the Department of Water Resources with addressing the issue. Two years and $1 billion later, Oroville Dam’s spillway was operational.
For some reason, the state cannot muster the same sense of urgency to protect the 650,000 people and hundreds of species of birds that are suffering due to the declining sea. What’s more, the proposed fixes for the sea are less expensive and technically easier than those at Oroville Dam.
At some point, it’s not about feasibility, it’s that the Newsom administration and those that preceded it have refused to prioritize the sea to fulfill their promises. While the state shuffles staff positions and redrafts budgets, we continue to wait.
But we — community members and others that care about the Salton Sea — are not waiting idly.
Community members and organizations have gathered to push the state to take immediate action. We have assisted the state in completing a Ten-Year Plan and in passing an order at the State Water Resources Control Board in which the state promised to complete 29,000 acres of dust control and habitat projects by 2029.
We have gathered as community members to provide input to plans and proposed projects. We’ve identified key staff positions that the state needs to carry out its commitments and urged the responsible agencies to hire that staff immediately.
We’ve identified and secured state and federal funding that agencies can apply to projects at the Sea, including funds from voter-approved bonds in 2014 and 2018 that cumulatively dedicated at least $280 million for Salton Sea projects.
Still, we wait to see the state act on our efforts.
Gov. Newsom’s leadership team will have the opportunity to explain why 2020 will be different for the Salton Sea when it presents on its progress to the State Water Resources Control Board in March. When it does, we hope to hear more than just new promises.
We want to see that the state is taking the Salton Sea — and the people that live here — seriously.
That means a more organized and well-staffed Salton Sea Management Program. That means an identified pipeline of dust control and habitat projects to get the State on track to meet its 29,000-acre commitment. That means authentic, respectful engagement with local community members on their needs and concerns. That means a new commitment from the local, state, and federal agencies involved in getting good project done quickly, by prioritizing review and approval of important plans, permits, contracts, and other agreements that have slowed progress for years.
If Gov. Newsom really wants to be held accountable, then this is his chance. If he intends to be true to his word, 2020 will no longer by about waiting. It will be about doing.
Email Frank Ruiz of Coachella, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California, at Frank.Ruiz@audubon.org.