Saving the Salton Sea

Al Kalin, TMDL On-Farm Consultant

Forty years ago I was appointed to a committee to save the Salton Sea by Tunney Williams, a County Supervisor at the time. Funding was found to study the problem, but nothing ever came of the committee’s work. Tunney passed away this past October a month short of his 97th birthday.
In 2004 the California Secretary of Resources appointed me to yet another committee to save the Salton Sea as the result of legislature passed along with the signing of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), to bring peace to the river over water rights for the next 35 years. The other members of the committee include many of the stake holders around the Salton Sea as well as scientists, engineers, bureaucrats and consultants.
We met numerous times in Sacramento, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Ontario, in Palm Desert; we even met in Holtville and El Centro. Millions of dollars were spent to study the Salton Sea in even greater detail.
After a few years eight plans were developed by the committee along with two “No Action Alternatives.” From the eight plans a preferred alternative was picked and sent to the Secretary of Resources. The goal was for the State Legislature to approve the plan and funding to implement it. Unfortunately the Secretary of Resources didn’t like our plan and came up with one on his own that cost $8.9 billion dollars, effectively saying he knew more about the Salton Sea than all the people on the committee. Legislation was never passed on the preferred alternative because the cost was too high for the almost bankrupt state to implement.
Four years later the sea has still not been saved and the QSA has been invalidated because the legislation that accompanied the QSA provided for unlimited funding. A judge ruled that was illegal. Meanwhile everyone is scrambling to get the QSA back on track and the Salton Sea continues to die and wither on the vine.
Saving the Salton Sea, as we imagine it being saved, will probably never happen. Instead grant money will continue to be made available for numerous consultants and scientists to study and recommend things to do that will never get done. For over forty years the Salton Sea has financially supported a large group of scientists and consultants.
With one ton of salt entering our valley with each acre-foot of water we receive from the Colorado River, the Salton Sea had become very salty. In addition, run-off from the farm fields has dumped that salt in the Salton Sea along with large amounts of fertilizer including phosphate.
Phosphate is the key fertilizer that causes massive algae blooms in the sea. After each algae bloom the dead algae sinks to the bottom and rots, reducing oxygen levels and creating the rotten egg smelling hydrogen sulfide. That in turn poisons the fish and other critters living in the Sea. The mixture of dead fish decaying on the shore and the rotten egg smell of the hydrogen sulfide, at times, has been overpowering.
For the last two years though, there has been no odor coming from the Salton Sea. In talking with Dr. Doug Barnum from the USGS Salton Sea Science office in La Quinta, he believes the lack of odor is due to Imperial Valley farmer’s diligence in implementing the Imperial Valley Silt TMDL program which has been very successful in reducing silt from leaving their fields. Phosphate cannot travel in the water going to the Salton Sea unless it is attached to a silt particle.
Although there has been no scientific study to prove it, Dr. Barnum strongly believes the farmer’s efforts to reduce phosphate levels in the Salton Sea by reducing silt leaving their fields have quietly accomplished what forty-plus years of study and promises has not been able to do. And for that, all you farmers who continue to implement best management practices on your fields should