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Restoring The Salton Sea

 March 1, 2021 at 3:51 AM PST

Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Monday, March 1st. What will a restored Salton Sea mean for Imperial County? But first... let’s do the headlines…. UC San Diego health officials closed down the Petco Park vaccination super station again over the weekend, due to a shortage of Moderna vaccine. Officials say it’ll stay closed through Tuesday. This weekend half a million teachers, police officers and grocery store workers became eligible for vaccines -- but concerns over supply remain. Meanwhile, Until Saturday the San Diego Police department were not technically eligible to get the vaccine, but they had been getting leftover doses that would otherwise go unused. Mayor Todd Gloria says officers are eager for the shot. "They understand the calculated risk they are taking both in their day to day job but to do in the context of a pandemic they have to be out in the field and it has been personally frustrating to me not be able to vaccinate them sooner." The California Department of Public Health says it’s on track to meet its goal of vaccinating 3 million people a week, starting today. Though, the state says meeting that goals will depend on vaccine supply. The state’s partnership with Blue Shield of California has been handling the distribution logistics. There have been some complaints from county’s over technical difficulties, but Blue shield says it’s working out the kinks and will take full management responsibility of the state’s vaccine network by the end of March. From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now. Stay with me for more of the local news you need. California is spending more than 200 million dollars to stabilize habitat along the southern edge of the Salton Sea in Imperial County. It’s good news for residents concerned about their health, but the restoration could also impact a lot of people who get water from the Colorado River. KPBS Environment reporter Erik Anderson has more. Tom Anderson walked across a dry patch of salty flat land just five years ago. (walking nats) The Fish and Wildlife Service project manager was showing off an area on the eastern edge of California’s largest lake. “On a windy day” he told me as he dragged his black work boots across the crusty surface, turning it into fine dust. ……….”It’s like billowing clouds with that fine material off the playa.” The lake was shrinking even then, because Imperial County Water Managers sold some of their Colorado River water to San Diego. The pace of the lake’s retreat jumped dramatically a few years ago and now thousands of acres of lakebed are exposed to the desert winds. Wade Crowfoot is California’s Natural Resources Secretary and he says the state is finally ready to help. “The notion of this shrinking sea and the emissive dust coming from the seabed is really alarming and concerning to local residents and we understand that.” California is spending money to cover four thousand acres of exposed lakebed with shallow water and habitat. It is the first of many projects on the southern edge of the lake that could end up costing billions of dollars. “It’s a long time in coming. There’s a real impatience and an understandable impatience of residents in Imperial and Riverside counties about restoration and stabilization of the sea.” California agreed to take on the Salton Sea restoration when Colorado River users and the federal government signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement in 2003. That deal cleared the way for the Imperial County to sell its water to urban areas like San Diego. It also cut the flow of water into the thirsty desert lake, exposing thousands of acres of dusty lakebed. “Every time we’re peeling back every inch of that playa we’re exposing over 100 years of contaminated sediment.” Luis Olmedo has worked for years to draw attention to the valley’s dirty air. The Comite Civico Del Valle even set up air quality monitors to track the pollution. “The entire air basin from Coachella to Imperial to Mexicali, We all share the air. It has, at least on the US side the California side. We’ve failed to meet federal standards for clean air. Those are those very conservative standards that have been put there to protect people who live here vulnerable populations. The region has long had some of California’s dirtiest air and the local asthma rate confirms that. More than 12 percent of the county’s population endures the illness. Farms, trucks and cross border factories all combine to heighten the public health risk. “Is it because we’re over 85 percent Latinos? People of color. Living in poverty that are not worth that investment? And here now we have the Salton Sea adding insult to injury.” Olmedo welcomes any project that improves air quality. “And that’s what this delivers. But it’s just one little tiny project to this massively drying area.” “Since the QSA was signed some 24-thousand acres of playa have been exposed” Michael Cohen studies western water issues at the Pacific Institute. “projections are it could be another 40-to-60 thousand acres not accounting for water use by the projects themselves. Some projections suggest it could be 100-thousand acres of lakebed exposed.” The public health threat adds urgency. So does the lake’s unique role in western water politics. The Imperial Irrigation District has senior water rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s flow and Cohen says the IID managers hope to leverage that power to funnel money into Salton Sea restoration efforts. But that raises questions. “Should the people and the birds, the people and the environment suffer to deliver additional water to people on the coast of California and to protect flows to Nevada and Arizona and the Republic of Mexico.” The pressure to act increases as the river’s flow diminishes. The Colorado River basin is in a nearly two decade long drought. The dry spell is the worst drought on record and fossilized records indicate it may be the driest period the basin has endured in more than a thousand years. “The real driver now is climate change. And what they call a hot drought.” Less water flowing down the river means there’s less drinking water for growing urban areas. The reduced flows also put extra pressure on California officials trying to keep the Salton Sea from becoming a public health disaster. That reporting from KPBS Environment reporter Erik Anderson. The USS Nimitz returned to San Diego on Friday. KPBS Military Reporter Steve Walsh has more on the status aboard the ship. The 5,000 sailors and Marines assigned to the Nimitz carrier strike group arrived in San Diego after a nearly 11 month-long deployment. The deployment was made longer by a quarantine that began April 8. Rear Adm. Jim Kirk says some of the restrictions loosened up as the carrier group remained COVID-free while spending nearly a year at sea, but the crew remained mostly isolated. “We were wearing masks. We were socially distanced. Our meetings were held in most cases remotely, limiting the amount of people. The lines were very long for eating and that created its own challenges.” At the beginning of the year, the Nimitz was scheduled to return but was ordered to remain in the Middle East, giving it the longest deployment of any carrier group since the Vietnam war. Also making history, it was the last carrier deployment of the F/A-18 Hornet in the U.S. Marine Corps. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 arrived back at Miramar Thursday. About 1,400 sailors and Marines will stay in San Diego, while the carrier heads to its home port in Washington with the rest of the crew. That was KPBS Military Reporter Steve Walsh. Coming up.... Starting today PG&E’s rate hike is going into effect for its central and northern California customers.. We’ll have more on that next, just after the break. Starting today, Pacific Gas and Electric Company is raising electricity rates by eight-percent. "For the average residential customer, the monthly energy bill increase is approximately $8.73." That's P-G-and-E's Lynsey Paulo. The utility company will use the funds to replace outdated equipment blamed for starting catastrophic wildfires, including the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed the town of Paradise. "We know that it's not easy to pay more, especially right now during this public health and economic crisis and so that's why we offer more than a dozen forms of assistance as well as resources for using less energy." But even with those resources, consumer advocates say P-G-and-E should hold off on any rate hikes. CapRadio's Steve Milne spoke with Mark Toney. He's the executive director of The Utility Reform Network - or TURN - based in San Francisco. Here’s that interview. P-G-and-E is the largest utility company in the United States serving about 16 million people throughout Bakersfield and north Santa Barbara County up to around the border with Oregon and Nevada. That’s it for the podcast today. Be sure to catch KPBS Midday Edition At Noon on KPBS radio, or check out the Midday podcast. You can also watch KPBS Evening Edition at 5 O’clock on KPBS Television, and as always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

California is spending more than 200 million dollars to restore the Salton Sea. But will it be enough? And what will a restored Salton Sea mean for the Imperial County? Meanwhile, troubles over the weekend for the vaccination efforts in San Diego County. Plus, today PG&E’s rate hikes go into effect across northern and central California.