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The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California and one of the most heavily used bird habitats in the country, is in danger of drying up.



Can California Farmers Save Water and the Dying Salton Sea?

Looming deadlines threaten a historic water agreement in the Imperial Valley.

Standing atop a rocky outcrop on the southeastern edge of the Salton Sea in southern California, Bruce Wilcox pointed to the wooden ruins of a boat dock that dates back to the 1960s, when the region was a marina that attracted sport fishermen and celebrities. On a sunny day last December, the dock sat hundreds of feet from the water, rendered obsolete by the shoreline's steady withdrawal. No boats were visible anywhere on the shimmering blue water.

"The marina's been dry for the last five or six years," said Wilcox, 60, the environmental manager for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which manages water and energy in California's Imperial Valley and has energy customers in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

Covering nearly 350 square miles (900 square kilometers), the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It was created in 1905 when heavy rain and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell and overtake headgates along the Alamo canal. It was largely sustained by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but since the late 1990s the sea has been steadily shrinking, partly because the runoff has dwindled due to a combination of the ongoing California drought, more efficient irrigation methods, and changing crop patterns.

The sea's decline will accelerate dramatically in 2018, when the IID must stop sending "mitigation water" to the lake as part of a pact known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA. Signed in 2003, the QSA was a deal between the U.S. Department of the Interior, California, and various water agencies in the state that placed California on a Colorado River water diet and transfers some of the river's flow to San Diego and other cities, where water is scarce.

Under the terms of the QSA, 30 million acre-feet of water will be sent to San Diego County and Coachella Valley over a period of 75 years, making it the largest ever farm-to-city water transfer in U.S. history. One acre-foot is approximately 325,900 gallons—or enough to supply two single-family households of four for a year.

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Dead fish lie on dry ground in July 2011 near pilings that once supported a dock at a former yacht club on the shore of the Salton Sea.

The QSA was designed to gradually wean California off its overdependence on water from the Colorado River. According to a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decree, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water—or about 30 percent of the total allocation—from the river annually, but the state regularly exceeded this amount in past years. This wasn't a problem as long as Arizona and Nevada didn't use up their apportionments, but as the populations of those states grew, so too did their water needs.

Of California's allotment, 2.6 million acre-feet is shunted to the Imperial Valley via an 82-mile (132-kilometer) canal, where it has been used to transform a sandy desert into a farming oasis. The Imperial Valley thus uses 20 percent of the Colorado River's total water allotment. With that water, farmers in the valley grow about 80 percent of the nation's winter crops, including lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupe, and onions. Farmers also produce alfalfa and Bermuda grass hay, which is used as dairy feed in the U.S. and abroad. (Related: "Exporting the Colorado River to Asia, Through Hay.")

The QSA has been in effect for more than a decade, but the deal's long-term success could be threatened because two of its key requirements remain unmet, and observers say there is little hope of their being satisfied before a 2018 deadline.

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The 80-mile (130-kilometer) All-American Canal (shown in August 2009) is the main water conduit from the Colorado River to the Imperial Dam.

Saving Water Down on the Farm

One of those requirements is the implementation of water-saving systems on farms. Under the terms of the QSA, the IID will deliver water to the San Diego County Water Authority and the Coachella Valley Water District for up to 75 years. The schedule calls for the amount of delivered water to increase by 20,000 acre-feet each year.

In 2013, about 100,000 acre-feet of water were delivered; by 2018, it will be 130,000 acre-feet per year, and by 2026, it will be 200,000 acre-feet per year, after which the volume will be capped.

The IID plans to meet its water obligations through a combination of efficiency improvements to its water delivery system and to on-farm water use. As an example of the former, the IID is lining portions of its delivery canals with concrete to reduce seepage losses and is constructing regulatory reservoirs to better match farmers' requests for water with actual supply.

Reducing on-farm water use has proven more difficult. The IID planned to meet this goal by enticing farmers to install advanced sprinkler systems and other improved irrigation techniques. "If you used to use 200 acre-feet and now you're using 160 acre-feet, we pay you for the 40 acre-feet that you saved," explained David Bradshaw, IID assistant water manager for agriculture water management.

The QSA gave the IID and Imperial Valley farmers 15 years—until 2018—to test and install the water-saving technologies. In the interim, the IID would fulfill its water obligations by asking farmers to fallow their fields. "We basically ask a farmer not to grow a crop for one year. We lock their gate and make sure no water goes into that field," Bradshaw said.

Currently, some 36,000 acres—or about 10 percent—of Imperial Valley's arable farmland is fallowed. Bradshaw estimates that more than 800,000 acre-feet of water have been conserved through fallowing since 2003.

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The process has its limits, though, because farmers can't fallow a particular field for more than three out of five years. Otherwise, the prolonged dryness that results from a lack of irrigation and crop cover can cause the soil to shrink and buckle, putting underground drainage pipes at risk.

To Fallow or Lease?

Not everyone is happy with the fallowing program. One complaint comes from the fact that the price the IID pays to farmers to fallow their fields has steadily increased over the years, from about $60 per acre-foot of water saved in 2004 to $125 per acre-foot of water saved in 2014.

"If you have a six acre-feet history [of water use], that converts to $750 per acre [of land]," said Al Kalin, a fourth-generation Imperial Valley farmer who works 2,000 acres of sugar beets, alfalfa, wheat, and carrots at the southern end of the Salton Sea. That price is much higher than the going rate to lease an acre of farmland in the area, which currently ranges from $325 to $450 an acre, according to Kalin.

Therefore, critics of the fallowing program say it discourages landowners from renting their plots to tenant farmers.

"A lot of the farmers don't own the land they farm," said Kalin. "The high prices that are being paid by the fallowing program compete directly with tenant farmers trying to lease ground to farm in the valley."

But the IID's Bradshaw says the decision of whether to fallow a field or lease it to a tenant farmer depends on the market. "For example, wheat prices were really high two years ago, and nobody cared about fallowing. They just wanted to make money on wheat. It's really an economic decision every time," he said.

The disagreements about fallowing will become moot by 2018, which is when the QSA requires that the program end. By then, farmers are supposed to have implemented various on-farm water conservation systems to reduce their water usage.

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A sprinkler system sprays crops with water from an irrigation canal (shown in August 2009) in an agricultural area that traditionally uses Colorado River water.

The program is voluntary, however, and requires farmers to pay for installations themselves and then recoup their expenses through payments by the IID for the amount of water saved annually. The cost of installing water-saving systems on an acre of land can range anywhere from $500 to upwards of $3,000. The more expensive the system, the longer it will take to recoup the costs.

"If you want to offset your cost in 12 months, you probably won't be able to do it for a drip irrigation field," Bradshaw said, referring to a high-efficiency, yet expensive, technology.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, very few farmers have volunteered for the program.

As a result, Kalin is deeply skeptical that the IID will be able to meet the 2018 deadline. "The original QSA language should never have required fallowing to stop in 2017 and immediately switch to on-farm conservation," he said. "You can't just change from fallowing to all these fancy on-farm programs overnight. It has to be done slowly."

The transition was intended to be gradual, supporters say. The IID was supposed to work with farmers to implement pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits of various water conservation techniques. But to date, very few such projects have been set up.

"This should've been started seven or eight years ago, and worked up slowly," Kalin said. "It's amazing that they haven't done more work. It's just poor management all around."

IID spokesperson Marion Champion said that much of the delay was due to numerous lawsuits surrounding the QSA. "In 2013, there was a final ruling that seemed to put more clarity to the situation, allowing us to move forward," Champion said.

She noted that in 2013, the IID contracted with about a dozen growers and began on-farm efficiency pilot projects that saved more than 2,000 acre-feet, and that 2014 will see an even greater ramp-up.

"We have an additional 50 to 60 fields ready to go to contract, with a projected savings of 13,000 acre-feet," Champion said. "Our goal for the 2014 program is to get that number closer to 40,000 acre-feet."

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Mullet Island is the only place for many thousands of island nesting birds, like the cormorants above in July 2013, to breed at the Salton Sea.

A Dying Sea

The other major problem threatening the QSA is the Salton Sea, which is home to more than 400 resident and migratory bird species, including several endangered ones. The sea is a critical pit stop for migratory birds flying south along the Pacific Flyway, and it is one of the most heavily used bird habitats in the country. As farms clamp down on their water usage, there will be less runoff and the lake's shrinkage will accelerate.

A diminished Salton Sea also poses a human health hazard, since receding water will expose more than 100,000 acres of lakebed, known as a playa, that is made up of silt and fine-grain soil and salt particles. This toxic dust can get lofted by desert winds and degrade air quality for residents in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, impairing public health by exacerbating respiratory conditions, in a region where childhood asthma rates are already three times higher than the state average.

A smaller Salton Sea would also directly impact agriculture in the region, according to Kalin. As a large body of water, the sea readily absorbs heat from the sun but relinquishes it only slowly. In the summer, the water temperature can reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), and it never dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) in the winter.

"When the prevailing northwest winds blow down the center of the Salton Sea from Palm Springs [in the winter], they're warmed by the 50-degree temperature of the sea," said Kalin. That warmer and more humid air then blows onto the farmland at the south end of the sea. In effect, the sea creates a favorable microclimate that allows Imperial Valley farmers to grow crops in the winter that can't be grown anywhere else in the country.

The original drafters of the QSA foresaw the environmental, health, and agricultural hazards that would be associated with a shrinking Salton Sea, but they could not agree on how to prevent them from happening. Rather than risk scuttling the deal, the stakeholders delayed the decision by requiring that the sea be fed by mitigation water until 2018. It was assumed that by then the state of California, upon which responsibility for restoring the sea ultimately lies, would have a plan in place.

That early optimism has proved unwarranted, critics say. In 2007, after more than three years of deliberation, the California Resources Agency announced the ambitious Salton Sea Restoration Plan, which had an estimated price tag of $8.9 billion. But a recent report by California's Bureau of State Audits found that the plan is projected to receive only $81.8 million by 2047.

"The real problem with the Salton Sea is that the scale of it is so large that any real mitigation effort would need to be similarly large in scale," said Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that focuses on freshwater issues. "And there's simply no time left now to construct and implement a mitigation plan of that magnitude.

"Four years from now, mitigation water delivery to the Salton Sea will no longer be required, and the sea is going to decline very rapidly."

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Dead palm trees stand at the former yacht club on the shore of the Salton Sea in July 2011.

A Smaller, More Sustainable Salton Sea?

Citing fears that California's grand plan will not be adequately funded, the IID and other groups are drafting their own schemes for smaller-scale restoration projects that are aimed at saving ecologically important parts of the sea. A state agency called the Salton Sea Authority is coordinating the various efforts.

"It's an incremental approach to restoration," Wilcox said. "We want to build multiple small areas of habitats as the sea recedes."

In 2013, the IID partnered with Imperial County to launch its own environmental restoration plan. Called the Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative, the plan would save a much smaller portion of the Salton Sea, but for a fraction of the cost of California's original plan. "I don't see California finding $9 billion, but I can see it having $10, $20, or $30 million a year to do this incremental approach," Wilcox said.

That would be enough money, Wilcox said, to jump-start the initiative. Ultimately, however, the IID thinks it can finance the initiative and jump-start the state's restoration efforts through renewable energy projects centered around the sea itself. The geothermal energy potential of the Salton Sea is among the highest in the nation, they say. Conservative estimates suggest there is nearly 2,000 megawatts of untapped energy in the area—enough to power more than one million homes.

A recent report commissioned by the IID concluded that renewable energy development at the sea could generate up to $4 billion in revenue over 30 years, with $2 billion going toward restoration.

The IID's initiative calls for geothermal plants to be built alongside newly restored habitats along the edges of the southeastern corner of the sea. According to this vision, the Salton Sea about a decade hence will be a very different place than it is today.

"It'll be roughly two-thirds its current size, and the southern section of the lakebed would end up resembling a kind of renewable enterprise zone, almost an industrial park for renewable energy," said IID general manager Kevin Kelly. He added that the district plans to route agricultural return flows to important habitat areas, to counteract the increasing salinity of the water as the sea shrinks.

In addition to geothermal facilities, the IID is also considering the installation of algae ponds for producing biofuels, solar panels, and salt-gradient solar ponds—which use density differences between fresh and saltwater to trap heat that can be extracted later.

"Interspersed among all of that would be berms and habitats and wetlands, and all of these mixed uses would end up complementing one another," Kelly said.

Much will need to happen before this dream can become a reality. The initiative will require actions from numerous local, state, and federal government agencies. For example, the Salton Sea would need to be designated as a renewable energy development area to encourage companies to invest their time, experience, and capital. New transmission lines would also need to be built for transporting power away from the sea, and that in turn will require cooperation from state and federal regulatory agencies as well as investor-owned utilities.

But as with its push for improved on-farm water efficiency, the biggest challenge the IID faces with its plans for the Salton Sea is time. The IID is developing pilot schemes to test the feasibility of blending renewable energy and ecological restoration projects at the same sites. For instance, one project proposes to flood a site called Red Hill Bay that is located near the abandoned Salton Sea boat dock with just enough water to cover exposed playa and prevent dust from becoming airborne while hosting a habitat for migrating birds and unobtrusive facilities for extracting geothermal energy.

But this project and others are still in the very early stages of development. "We are behind. Ideally, we would've had Red Hill Bay built five years ago," Wilcox said. "We're getting closer and closer to the point where we're simply running out of time."

Kelly said he thinks it would be in California's best interest to support the IID's initiative. "We're proposing a way forward that would eliminate the need for coming up with an unrealistic $9 billion and replace it with an achievable restoration and renewable energy initiative," he said.

"It's simply a matter of the state figuring out that it can do itself a lot of good by summoning the political will to address this while it's still possible, because this business of simply running out the clock is not going to advance the state's water interests, and it does not help the renewable energy resources get to where it can be used by people throughout the state."

To date, several California city and state officials, including Senator Ben Hueso and Congressmen Juan Vargas and Raul Ruiz, have written letters of support for the IID's Salton Sea initiative, so some of that political will may be building.

Funding for this piece was generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.

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