San Diego Business Journal

Experts, Agencies Spar Over Salton Sea's Fate

Infrastructure: Decision Could Affect Local Water Transfer Plan

Staff Writer

It might be nothing more than a salt lake. But the Salton Sea could be the key as to whether Southern California will lose 230 billion gallons of drinking water next year.

Water experts gathered July 19 in San Diego to discuss the fate of the Salton Sea. Questions about the lake could upset a proposed agreement on water use , and experts have no easy answers.

The Salton Sea question could block a water transfer deal in which the Imperial Irrigation District would transfer additional water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The transfer, meanwhile, is part of a larger agreement describing how much Colorado River water California agencies can use, said Gary Weatherford, of San Francisco-based law firm Weatherford & Taafe.

Without an agreement in place by a Dec. 31 deadline, the federal government will step in. California will lose 700,000 acre feet of Colorado River water overnight, going from 5.1 million acre-feet a year to its historic allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet, he said.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

The reason the Salton Sea figures into all this is that some say the water transfer would devastate the Salton Sea, which depends entirely on agricultural runoff, or excess water from nearby farms. The sea is home to at least 96 species of endangered and threatened birds, said Robert Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But the only way to comply with the Endangered Species Act, while satisfying the terms of the water transfer, is to force farmers to stop farming , in effect "fallowing" their land, Johnson said. That makes farmers nervous, he said.

Making things more difficult, the lake may die on its own, with or without the water transfer. Already, the Salton Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.

In time, salinity will increase as more mineral-laden agricultural runoff flows into the lake, and these salts are left behind as water evaporates from the surface, he said.

The bureau is working on a solution to save the lake without requiring fallowing. However, if that issue isn't settled, the only other alternative is that the state loses out on 700,000 acre feet overnight, Johnson said.

Jurg Heuberger, planning director for Imperial County, said the county does not support fallowing, but added it might be inevitable in order to save the sea. Falling lake levels would create an air quality disaster as sediments from the dry lakebed are exposed to the wind, leading to massive dust storms in already polluted Imperial County, he said.

However, Heuberger said farmers shouldn't have to pay the price for saving the sea.

"The Salton Sea stabilization shouldn't come at the cost of the agricultural economy," he said. "In the county of Imperial, the No. 1 industry has been, continues to be, and probably will be for some time the agricultural industry. We cannot lose our No. 1 industry."

John Penn Carter, chief counsel of the Imperial Irrigation District, echoed that theme.

"If we fallow, we fallow as much as 75,000 acres. The impact is as much as 2,600 jobs lost," he said. "Our experts have estimated that over 75 years, there's a present value of somewhere between $1.4 (billion) and $1.6 billion in negative economic impacts."

Kevin Doyle, director of conservation programs for the National Wildlife Federation, supported fallowing. The water transfer deal, as written, would speed the death of the Salton Sea, he said. It would also create an air quality disaster in Imperial Valley, and also lead to additional growth in San Diego County, destroying native habitat there, he added.