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Summer 2013


A project of the Water Education Foundation Finding a Solution for the Salton Sea By Gary Pitzer


For decades, it’s been known that absent dramatic and sustained action, the Salton Sea would become an uninhabitable place for fi sh and birds as the terminal lake’s salinity level spiked. T at eventual reality became more apparent with the 2003 approval of the Quantifi cation Settlement Agreement (QSA), the historic pact that ended longstanding disputes among California water agencies that obtain water from the Colorado River. T e practical eff ect of the QSA was to limit California’s annual water use to 4.4 million acre-feet, cutting off the extra water the state had relied on for years. T e best-known mechanism for the state to meet that amount was the major agriculture-urban water transfer from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), a regional wholesale agency that provides water to more than 3 million people.


But the water transfer will result


in reduced infl ow into the Salton Sea beginning in 2018 as effi ciency and con- servation measures are implemented on IID farms. But even now the sea’s level is dropping, providing a glimpse into the future and once again bringing to light the complicated dilemma of the Sea. Located in the Coachella and Imperial


valleys, the Salton Sea is a problem of infi nite complexity. T e consequences of its decline have been well documented, yet a solution to preserve it cannot be easily fashioned. T ere is widespread agreement that staying the course is not an acceptable alternative, yet fi nding a tried, long-lasting and economical version of the Sea has not happened. “A tremendous amount of money has been spent already but we do not see much habitat or air quality control


projects on the ground,” said Kim Delfi no, director of California Programs with Defenders of Wildlife, at a February oversight hearing of the Assembly Water Parks, and Wildlife Committee in Mecca, at the Sea’s northern edge. Prior to the QSA, the Sea’s salinity had been increasing and its water level dropping. Today, the Sea faces an uncertain future as its infl ow dwindles even more with the advent of greater water conservation, climatic fl uctuations and reduction in infl ows from Mexico. T e loss of water means more exposed lakebed. Desert wind picks up the dust, worsening an existing problem in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. T e dust is more than an irritant; it is unhealthy, carrying the remnants of arsenic, chromium, zinc, lead, selenium


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