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Governor Appoints New Salton Sea Policy Official

A bird skirts the Salton Sea's receding shoreline, April 10, 2015.

Aired 9/30/15 on KPBS News.

The Imperial Irrigation District's environmental manager Bruce Wilcox has a new role: assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at California's Natural Resources Agency.

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown filled a newly created position to oversee restoration of the Salton Sea. He appointed Bruce Wilcox, currently the Imperial Irrigation District's environmental manager, to California's Natural Resources Agency.

As assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, Wilcox will step into the first state-level position focused on fixing California's largest — and most troubled — body of inland water, located about 100 miles east of San Diego.

The Salton Sea has relied on runoff from nearby farms. But that inflow has been drying up as transfer agreements bring water away from Imperial County farms and to nearby San Diego and the Coachella Valley.

As the sea shrinks, habitats for birds and fish could vanish. And newly exposed lakebed could lead to higher levels of dust pollution, aggravating public health in surrounding communities. Wilcox said he'll seek new state funding to ward off these environmental and public health threats.

"One of the responsibilities will be to identify funding streams and try to develop a funding plan and to make sure that the project stays visible," Wilcox told KPBS.

Wilcox says fully restoring the Salton Sea to its previous size isn't the goal — he aims to maintain a smaller body of water ringed by a constellation of managed wildlife habitats and renewable energy projects.

If his vision pans out, Wilcox said, "You'll see an interior saline sink where the water ends up after it's too salty to use for anything else. Then there will be some exposure between that sink and the habitats we build. So it's like a donut, almost."

Those wetlands should help prevent dust from blowing far and wide, while also giving migratory birds a place to thrive, Wilcox said.

The cost of current restoration proposals totals about $3 billion. But a recent study from the Pacific Institute concluded that letting the Salton Sea deteriorate could end up costing the state a lot more, upwards of $30 billion.

Wilcox said he'll advocate for using money from California's new water bond, approved by voters through Proposition 1, to kickstart Salton Sea restoration projects.

"If you had $100 million, you could start these projects now," Wilcox said. "We designed these so that as playa becomes exposed, the next phase of the projects can happen."

Michael Cohen, the author of the Pacific Institute study, said recent developments have given "new hope" for the Salton Sea.

"California’s creation of the new assistant secretary position and the governor’s excellent choice of a proven leader to staff the position gives hope that the state is now committing to the Salton Sea," Cohen wrote in a post on National Geographic's website.

"The next several months will determine whether we can convert this hope into reality."

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