Basin-Delta Mothersite

Political and Editorial Commentary

Salton Sea Home Page

Remarks By Congressman George E. Brown, Jr.

Association of California Water Agencies
Salton Sea Inspection Trip Conference

April 2, 1998

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak a few words on the Salton Sea. I am pleased to have the opportunity to lobby so many of you on the importance of the body of water you will be visiting tomorrow--the Salton Sea. I want to thank ACWA for devoting its resources to convening this Salton Sea Inspection Trip, and I want to thank those of you who have taken the time to be here.

As some of you may know, I was raised in Holtville, California, which is in the Imperial Valley, a few miles south of the Sea. When I was a boy, the Salton Sea played a big part in our recreation plans. It was a grand, pastoral place to go. We loved it. Iím not going to take up your time reminiscing today. You've heard about the problems at the Sea all day long. Simply put--the Salton Sea is a beautiful water resource, and it's dying. And because the death of the Sea can impact the Inland Empire, California and the ecology of the western United States, all of ACWA's membership can be impacted as well. Its health is a far reaching environmental issue.

Let me begin by updating you on where we are with the Federal legislation. Many of you know that for years I've been in communication with the Imperial Irrigation District and the other members of the Salton Sea Authority, working hard to sound the alarm bells in Washington. Early last year, Sonny Bono, Duncan Hunter, Ken Calvert and I first met to discuss the problems at the Salton Sea, to see if we could act together to save the Sea. Together, we formed the Congressional Salton Sea Task Force. We succeeded in elevating the general level of understanding and commitment to save the sea. A Congressional hearing was held in Palm Desert on October 3rd of last year. Secretary of Interior Babbitt and other high level officials traveled to the Sea. Sadly, it was the death of our colleague, Sonny Bono, that spurred the Congress and other bodies to act.

In February, the Congressional Task Force unveiled the Sonny Bono Memorial Salton Sea Reclamation Act. Within two weeks, Senators Boxer and Feinstein also introduced a bill. Last week, the authors on both sides ironed out most of the differences in the bills, and the House bill was approved, with improvements, in its first Subcommittee test on a voice vote. As currently written, the Salton Sea bill directs the Secretary of Interior to complete all of the paperwork for a solution project within 18 months, after an MOU is signed by the local, state, and federal participants. Weíve estimated $30 million for the environmental studies, engineering and other requirements, and authorized that amount. Weíve also estimated $300 million for the construction in this authorizing legislation. We think $300 million is a good initial target. The solution could cost more or less, depending on cost-share levels and the size of the selected project, but we donít know those things at this time, and we need to begin. If necessary, we can defer the construction authorization until after a construction option is selected.

Iím optimistic about the future of the legislation. Itís basically up to those in government now to save the Sea or let it die, and I just don't think they will let it die. A growing number of people are committed to saving the Salton Sea.

Now let me tell you that the Salton Seaís greatest problem has not been its rising surface level, salinity or any other physical factors. The greatest problem with the Salton Sea has been the failure of local, state, and federal authorities, whose responsibilities included the health of the Salton Sea, to provide thoughtful stewardship for the Salton Sea. These authorities and agencies have failed to acknowledge responsibility for the health of the Sea and to act collectively on the difficult problem of its sustainable maintenance. Year after year, growing problems were deferred, until it inevitably fell to today's stakeholders to either act to save the Sea or through inaction allow it to die. Let me tell you how we got there. As many of you know, Iíve been spending some time reading the early engineering studies commissioned over the years on the Salton Sea. I have a few handouts here listing some of the more important references. They are interesting reading. Let me give you an example. In 1969, the Secretary of Defense contracted with the Aerospace Corporation to review options to head off future salinity problems at the Salton Sea. The study correctly predicted todayís salinity mess, and reviewed, in detail, diked impoundments, pipeline/canal projects, and fresh water options.

That was thirty years ago. Here we are, thirty years later, debating the same options, trying to convince the same agencies that they must work together to save the Sea. It should not have been this way. I recently finished a 1988 report by Meyer Resources, which determined that the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Reclamation, and Fish and Wildlife Service should act on behalf of the federal government. The report also argues that Californiaís Water Resources Control Board, Regional Water Quality Board, Water Commission, and Department of Water Resources should also be there on behalf of the State of California. Imperial County, Riverside County, and the local water districts should also have been there, even before they formed the Salton Sea Task Force and its successor, the Salton Sea Authority.

According to Meyer Resources report, EPA argues that it has no jurisdiction at the Sea, based on its determination that the primary function of the Salton Sea is as a repository of agricultural wastewater. The EPA has regulatory authority over "point source" pollution of waters entering the Sea, but since the majority of the flow is from "non-point sources," non-action is defendable. It is easy to see that designation of the Salton Sea as solely a "repository of agricultural waste water" has led it to its current condition. This characterization of the Salton Sea is outdated and favors one set of users over others. Rather, the Salton Sea is potentially worth far more for its non-agricultural services than for its agricultural services. Earlier this year, the head of UC Riversideís School of Economics argued that a clean, swimmable Sea was worth over $200 hundred million dollars to the local area, with a present value of $6 to $10 billion dollars in total. The farmers of the Imperial and Coachella valleys are probably happy to have the Sea just serve as a sink for their waste water. Imagine the alternative: EPA-certified water treatment facilities of sufficient capacity to deal with a million acre-feet of water per yearóbillions of dollars. But the Sea can provide more environmental services than just those for the farmers. It can provide high-value recreational services, and priceless wildlife and other ecosystem services.

If the Sea were just a sink for drain water, than Iíd accept the arguments for a 100-year-life diked impoundment. If you believe, as I do, that the Sea has a broader range of diverse critical uses, than you would also believe, as I do, that we need to pump salt water from the Sea to another location, probably the Laguna Salada salt flats. Iíve worked very hard to convince decision-makers that no one will want to live near a 50 square mile pond filled with concentrated organic material. Under this scenario only the agricultural users would have use of the Sea, since no communities would be built near the Sea to create an alternative constituency. An impoundment will drive off the competition. So, I just canít see how an open-process of solution-finding can come up with an impoundment scheme to save the Sea. And that is why I have been suspicious when maintenance cost limits have been used as selection criteria to constrain solution selection to impoundment alternatives.

In northern California, stakeholders are joining together to save the bay-delta at a total cost of over a billion dollars. ACWA members have been involved in the process from the start. I am very impressed with the systems-based approach of the CALFED partners and all of the participants in the solution process. I believe that we can solve the problems in the north and south serially. Weíre just getting started at the Salton Sea, but we have to work quickly. Letís apply the lessons learned from the bay-delta process to fixing the Salton Sea. Itís just as deserving, and probably just as complex a problem.

Tomorrow as you visit the Sea, imagine Sonny Bonoís vision of a clean Sea, with shoreline (and even island) communities, abundant wildlife, fishing, boating, and agriculture all partaking of its blessings. Project an economic scenario in which visitor-days in the region rise to twice what they were in 1965, instead of dropping to one quarter of the 1965 levels, and land values see a comparable increase. Add to this the beneficial economic impact on the region of transferring conserved agricultural water, possibly as much as twenty percent of current usage, to urban uses, thus reducing pressure to import Northern California water to the South, and providing capital to revolutionize agricultural productivity and profitability in the region. This adds up to a vision worthy of the pioneers who first dreamed of converting an arid desert into a modern garden of Eden.

Congressman Brown's SALTON SEA Web Page

To the Top