California regulators on Tuesday approved a plan to spend nearly $400 million over 10 years to slow the shrinking of the state's largest lake, a vital migratory stop for birds and a buffer against swirling dust in farming towns.
Funding for the Salton Sea is unclear but the plan enjoyed support of major water agencies and environmental advocacy groups and preserves a fragile peace among urban and rural areas in California on distributing the state's share of Colorado River water. Authorities in Imperial Valley, home to the 350-square-mile (560-square-kilometer) lake, had threatened to derail a landmark water-sharing agreement unless California did more to honor its commitment to a long-term fix.
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Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, told the State Water Resources Control Board that the plan would create a smaller but more sustainable lake. He acknowledged public opinion was divided in the desert farming region of about 175,000 people, which provides the U.S. with much of its winter vegetables.
"You can't let the perfect stand in the way of the good," he told board members meeting in Los Angeles. "Foremost in our mind is that there needs to be a pathway forward and we need to all extricate ourselves from this cave that the Salton Sea has become."
The plan comes at a crucial time for the salty lake about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles because San Diego's regional water agency will stop sending water to the lake Dec. 31, accelerating evaporation. San Diego agreed to help preserve the lake for 15 years under a 2003 agreement that allowed it buy large amounts of Colorado River water from the Imperial Valley.
The Salton Sea — called "The Accidental Sea" because it was created in 1905 when the Colorado River breached a dike and two years of flooding filled a sizzling basin — has long been a flashpoint in water negotiations. Demands from San Diego and coastal cities clash with desires to protect a critical habitat for more than 400 species of birds and shield farming communities from dust that may contribute to respiratory ailments.
The plan involves building ponds on the northern and southern ends of the lake, which has no outlet and has suffered a string of environmental setbacks since the late 1970s. During its heyday of international speed boat races, it drew more visitors than Yosemite National Park and celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys.
Projects outlined in the plan released would cover 29,800 acres of the 48,300 acres expected to dry up by 2028 if nothing were done.
The $383-million plan — considered inadequate by critics — faces significant questions over who will pay for it and there are no clear consequences if it fails.
The state has set aside $80 million, leaving a shortfall of $300 million. A multibillion-dollar ballot measure for parks and water infrastructure would deliver another $200 million if voters approve it in June.
It takes effect as California, Arizona and Nevada negotiate how to share the burden of possible cuts from the overtaxed Colorado River, which supplies seven western U.S. states and northwest Mexico. A rift among California water agencies may have prevented the state from a united front in those talks.
"California's participation (in Colorado River talks) is hinged on getting the Salton Sea issue resolved," said Michael Cohen, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, which backed the plan along with other environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.