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State Launches Salton Sea Restoration Effort

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California is poised to begin reshaping the southern edge of the Salton Sea. The receding lake has left behind a dry lakebed that is creating a public health crisis.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The environmental crisis posed by the shrinking Salton sea has been known for years now at long last, the first major restoration project at California's largest Lake is set to begin. The $200 million state project will create fish and bird habitat on what is now dry exposed Lake bed. It's a first step toward mitigating the environmental damage and health risks created by the evaporating salt and sea journey may is KPBS and environment reporter Eric Anderson and welcome Eric. Thank you, Maureen. The issue of salt and sea restoration has been postponed for many years. How does this project fit into California's overall commitment to that restoration?

Speaker 2: 00:45 Yeah, that's a really good question. Uh, one of the things that California committed itself to do, uh, as part of a water sharing agreement that was signed a number of years ago, back in the early two thousands, it committed itself to make sure that, uh, water transfers that might happen as a result of this water sharing deal, uh, do not negatively impact the salt and sea. And they committed themselves to a multi-billion dollar restoration, uh, of the, uh, of the area. Now what in fact, uh, has happened, uh, out there so far is not that much, however, this, uh, project that's $200 million project, which would cover some 4,000 acres of exposed Lake bed at the Southern edge of the sea is really kind of, uh, the state, uh, getting its feet wet, so to speak in, in terms of making sure that the Salton sea restoration project moves forward. I spoke about it a little bit last week with California, natural resources, secretary Wade Crawford.

Speaker 3: 01:54 This is the first major project that the state has advanced to address the challenges that the Salton sea, uh, both, you know, worsening air quality as a result of a mist of dust and restoration of habitat for birds and the Pacific flyway and fish.

Speaker 1: 02:13 Why is this first project aimed at providing fish and bird habitats?

Speaker 2: 02:19 Well, the fish and bird habitats actually do another thing that is much more urgent. They help control the dust. Some of these 4,000 acres are going to be shallow flooded flats, if you will, uh, that will create habitat for fish and birds. Others will be areas that are plants that have been planted there to hold that dust into place and to also provide some cover for, for birds that might be flying in and out of that area. But in total, all of this project is designed to do primarily one thing. And that is, is to kind of trap the dust in this dry Lake bed, uh, in the ground. It doesn't get into the air and cause big problems.

Speaker 1: 03:03 Now the salt and sea began to shrink rapidly in 2018. Can you remind us what role San Diego played in that?

Speaker 2: 03:12 Sure. San Diego has been buying water from the Imperial Valley, uh, for some time now, since that was permitted under this wide water sharing deal signed by the federal government. Um, and since that's happened, uh, the Imperial Valley was required until 2018 to put mitigation water into the Salton sea, basically to keep it from shrinking faster than it was, uh, already shrinking at the time. Um, and so they put mitigation water in there, but their obligation to do that ended in 2018. And since then, the shoreline of the sea has retreated dramatically in just three years' time. So many acres of upline have been exposed, uh, both on the Southern and also on the Eastern edge of the sea

Speaker 1: 03:57 Imperial County already has high rates of asthma and lung ailments. How does the shrinking salt and sea add to that?

Speaker 2: 04:06 This is really the public health emergency part of this situation. When these Lake beds are exposed, the desert winds, which exists in that area, pick up the particles and those particles get airborne. And, and when they're airborne people breathe them in. Um, and that exacerbates, what's already a difficult area, uh, in terms of lung health in the state of California, I talked to Louis Almeda of the committee civical device about the situation. This is something that he has worked on for many, many years, and he is frustrated that he doesn't feel, uh, the state and, uh, other interested parties are moving quickly enough to make sure that this extra, this new source of emissions is taken care of.

Speaker 4: 04:53 When we talk about solvency, that's an entirely new source. Every time we're peeing, filling back every inch of that fly out, we're exposed in over a hundred years of contaminated sediment. Okay.

Speaker 1: 05:08 Okay. So this means that it's important that, that this project move along in a timely fashion. When is it supposed to be completed?

Speaker 2: 05:17 Uh, this project should be completed in 2023, just a couple of years. The state's going to invest $200 million. They've set aside about $400 million to do the first phase of the restoration work, the entire project, restoring all the areas around the Lake and making sure that they're not a problem environmentally, uh, is going to cost in the billions though.

Speaker 1: 05:38 Wow. Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS environment, reporter Eric Anderson and Eric. Thank you very much. My pleasure.

Speaker 4: 06:04 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.