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California Officials Set Modest Plans For Vanishing Salton Sea

Birds gather on a small spot of water surrounding trees supporting heron nests in the midst of the blight that has become the Salton Sea, Dec. 27, 2010.
Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press
Birds gather on a small spot of water surrounding trees supporting heron nests in the midst of the blight that has become the Salton Sea, Dec. 27, 2010.

California officials said Wednesday that the drought-stricken state set an unachievable bar to save the Salton Sea and outlined small projects aimed at staving off the demise of the state's largest lake, disappointing farmers, environmentalists and others.

Kealii Bright, the state Natural Resources Agency's deputy secretary for legislation, said the state erred in 2007 when it unveiled an $8.9-billion plan to rescue the disappearing Salton Sea. He said the lake must compete with other projects for limited state bond money, and officials highlighted modest endeavors that have yet to be completed, like a $1.1-million project for a 70-acre wetlands project.

The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown had been largely silent on the Salton Sea, even after Imperial Valley agencies proposed in November that the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer be conditioned on the state fulfilling a 2003 pledge to restore the southeastern desert lake. Key state agencies didn't submit written testimony ahead of an all-day workshop at the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento and didn't send senior administration officials.


"The $9-billion plan stands in our way when we look at how do we organize around getting resources for the Sea because it stands as an unrealistic goal with the circumstances we face today," said Bright, who led a panel of water experts at various state agencies.

Imperial Valley officials and environmentalists agreed the plan by Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was unrealistic but they hoped to hear something more substantial after more than a decade with almost nothing to show. The state's pledge of support for the Salton Sea was crucial to passing a landmark agreement in 2003 that shifted water from Imperial Valley to San Diego and put Southern California on a water diet.

Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, said the comments by state officials "basically showed inertia and futility."

"The undisputed fact is that this confirms they have projects in the pipeline and they built out zero acres," he said.

The Salton Sea is expected to shrink even faster after 2017, when San Diego is no longer required to replenish it with water from the Colorado River. The San Diego County Water Authority agreed to contributions for 15 years as a condition for buying water from the Imperial Valley.


San Diego accounts for 10 percent of the lake's inflow this year, or enough to supply about 200,000 homes. Its contribution goes to zero in 2018.

All eyes will be on the five members of the State Water Resources Control Board, which had a key role in the 2003 water-sharing agreement.

Kimberly Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife's California program manager, recommended that the State Water Resources Control Board "herd the cats" to develop a financing plan within six months. She said Wednesday's remarks by state officials lacked a sense of urgency.

"We don't have a lot of time," she said. "They don't have to provide the money upfront and put it in escrow, but they have to at least show us some idea of where we're going to be going with this."