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Salton Sea: politicos unite to lobby for federal dollars

A still day at the Salton Sea. (Sanden Totten/KPCC)
A still day at the Salton Sea. (Sanden Totten/KPCC)
Sanden Totten / KPCC

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It’s the largest body of water in California. It's saltier than the Pacific Ocean. And now local political leaders and their Washington counterparts are uniting to save the Salton Sea.

Last fall, the House and the Senate passed slightly different versions of The Water Resources Development Act. The measures are still waiting for a conference committee to hammer out a single bill. Both versions would double federal funding aimed at restoring aquatic ecosystems, prioritizing projects identified as a public health threat, ecosystems of national importance or important habitats for protected species of migratory birds. But Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who authored the Senate bill, complains that “in the face of constrained budgets at all levels of government, and the complexity of the task, movement on restoration efforts has been frustratingly slow.”

The Salton Sea was created over a century ago when the Colorado River flooded into what was an ancient part of the Gulf of California. The sea has been steadily drying up. Its stench can be smelled more than a hundred miles away.

In their annual platform or wish list, the Riverside County Supervisors last week formally asked Congress to keep language in the bill that could designate millions of dollars to restore the Salton Sea. Supervisors say we’re at a tipping point where the Sea will either devolve “into an ecological and economic disaster,” or be transformed into a “healthy, attractive environment.”

But money is scarce these days. Alternate funding proposals often have more chance of success. Last week, Senator Boxer convened a special Salton Sea briefing on Capitol Hill where the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District proposed another way to pay for restoration of the accidental lake: use renewable energy development at the Salton Sea.

Boxer, as well as House Democrats Raul Ruiz of Palm Springs and Juan Vargas of Chula Vista, have now sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to get behind the renewable energy proposal. “Designating a Salton Sea renewable energy development focus area would fall in line with the Administration’s commitments to develop clean energy, and further give clarity to the Sea’s future.”

Late today, the Department of the Interior announced it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Salton Sea Authority.The MOU is a “commitment to find collaborative solutions to resource challenges, to share available technical and scientific information and expertise, and to prioritize partnerships to improve resource conditions in and around the Sea.”