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Dust Up Over Salton Sea Project At Red Hill Bay

Red Hill Bay stretches out toward the horizon in this undated photo.
Erik Anderson
Red Hill Bay stretches out toward the horizon in this undated photo.

When Imperial County officials broke ground on the Red Hill Bay project in 2015, it was heralded as the beginning of a new era around the Salton Sea.

State officials were beginning a long-awaited restoration project that was projected to be done in two years.

Dust Up Over Salton Sea Project At Red Hill Bay
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

The 400-acre site on the eastern edge of California’s largest lake was underwater not too long ago, but water transfer and more efficient irrigation in the valley have cut the flow of water into the lake.

This project would flood the shallow bay and keep potentially harmful dust underwater. But the restoration project remains incomplete even though it is more than five years overdue.

“Five years later, after many of these red ribbon cuttings and unveilings happened there’s been little action on the ground at Red Hill Bay,” said JB Hamby, a director with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

RELATED: State Water Project Takes Aim At Restoring Salton Sea, Alleviating Health Risks

That inaction roils Imperial Valley air quality officials, and state regulators have issued a citation to the IID.

“It’s a pretty standard ticket that the air pollution control district gives pretty often,” said Katie Burnworth of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District.

The exposed lakebed is a source of particle pollution and regulators hoped the citation would prompt the IID to move forward with the project.

“We had to go this strong enforcement route because nothing’s been done at the Salton Sea,” Burnworth said. “We continued to try to be a partner and essentially we became the enabler.”

The region has well-documented issues with air quality and asthma. Imperial County fails to meet federal clean air standards for particulate pollution.

RELATED: State Launches Salton Sea Restoration Effort

When the wind kicks up, the dry lakebed becomes a man-made source of small potentially toxic particles known as PM 10.

“The scariest thing about the playa is we really don’t know what’s in it,” Burnworth said. “The things that we do know about the playa is that it is PM 10. But the scary part is the unknown.”

That unknown could include toxic industrial pollution that washed into the lake and mixed with the sediment.

IID officials will defend themselves a third hearing on the issue on Thursday, but they say these formal proceedings did not need to happen.

“We need to get together, get on the same page and finish the project, not continue to fight about this,” Hamby said. “But when the air district inserted itself in and demanded to continue the hearing and take this adversarial rather than cooperative route it blew up all progress we were making.”

RELATED: Study: Toxic Elements Around Salton Sea Could Adversely Affect Nearby Residents

The IID has its eye on potentially rich underground resources. CalEnergy has a contract to explore geothermal energy and mine lithium at Red Hill Bay. A restoration project that floods the area complicates those plans.

dry lakebed at the Salton Sea in this undated photo.
Erik Anderson
dry lakebed at the Salton Sea in this undated photo.

“They’re saying, 'Oh no. We don’t want to do these projects now,'” said Luis Olmedo of the public health group Comite Civico del Valle.

He has long fought to protect residents from dirty air and he is frustrated by the go-slow attitude.

“Now we want to see what kind of industry we can bring into these exposed areas,” Olmedo said. “Times out. Times up. There is no time for that.”

The federal government is ready to step in and take over the project, but they need some security about the land’s future.

RELATED: Project Takes Aim At Controlling Salton Sea Dust

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken over control of the state funding for the restoration project. That’s a bit more than $3 million.

But they are holding off their investment, not having a long-term lease that secures the future of their project.

“The federal government and state government have stepped up,” Olmedo said. “They said, we’ll fund this. We’ll pay for this. We’ll maintain it. We’ll do operations and maintenance in perpetuity.”

For once, it is local officials, the IID, holding up progress on a Salton Sea project. And the Imperial Valley cannot afford to wait because the dried-out lakebeds are increasingly exposed to strong desert winds.

“There’s only time to mitigate that exposed area right now,” Olmedo said. “And look ... if you want to dry it up later and replace it with another best-available measure that an industry wants to bring in, that’s fine. Do it then.”

RELATED: Change At The Salton Sea Is Affecting Bird Populations

The IID’s JB Hamby said it is not that simple.

“There are complications with the lithium and geothermal releases. With mineral rights. With CalEnergy,” Hamby said. “With Fish and Wildlife and certain leases they have or don’t have. And the elevation, The Alamo (River), water quality and a whole host of other things.”

But, if a project does not get underway soon, steep fines may be coming.

“Obviously this abatement order is used as a tool to keep everyone on task and on a timeline,” Burnsworth said. “Because what’s missing at the Salton Sea is a referee and a timer.”

Fines, however, could delay the project even more if the penalties are challenged in court.