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[Press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior
giving Secretary Babbitt's Ideas on the process for analysis
and restoration of the Salton Sea]

 

Contact: Tim Ahern (202) 208-5089
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Dec. 19, 1997

 

STATEMENT BY
INTERIOR SECRETARY BRUCE BABBIT
AFTER MEETING WITH GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES
INVOLVED IN SALTON SEA ISSUES

THE CHALLENGE

Environmental conditions at the Salton Sea have been deteriorating steadily over the past several years. Salinity levels in the Sea have been increasing, and water in the Sea is now 25 percent more salty than ocean water. A variety of other contaminants also are flowing into the Sea, including contaminants from agricultural run-off and from industrial and domestic sources. Because the Sea has no natural outlet, the concentration of all contaminants in the Sea s on the rise. The absence of an outlet also has led to fluctuating sea levels as the flows through inlet streams rise and fall from season to season and year to year.

Taken together, these environmental factors are putting significant stress on the Salton Sea ecosystem. Signs of the stress abound. The Sea is an important resource for a wide variety of fish and wildlife, including waterfowl which rely on the Sea as an important stop-over in the Pacific flyway system. In recent years, there have been several fish and wildlife kills, with many scientists suspecting that environmental conditions at the Sea may be contributing factors. Environmental stresses on the Salton Sea also are taking a toll on recreational uses of the Sea. The Sea is becoming less attractive to swimmers, boaters, and anglers.

PAST EFFORTS TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES

Concern about the future of the Salton Sea is not new. Over the years, there have been numerous initiatives to identify and address the causes of the Sea's decline.

In recent years, there has been a renewed sense of urgency to confront the environmental issues and to move forward with a plan that might mitigate the adverse environmental forces at work in the ecosystem. The Salton Sea Authority, which was formed in 1993, has been the focal point of much of the recent effort. The Authority has developed cooperative relationships with a number of federal and state agencies to help address issues relating to the Sea. By way of example, the Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation have undertaken a preliminary, screening analysis of wide variety of potential alternatives for addressing the Sea's environmental problems.

Despite the formation of some good working relationships among interested local, state and federal authorities, the number of interested parties and agendas has been proliferating. In response to the many unanswered questions about the causes and potential remedies for adverse fish and wildlife impacts, for example, research proposals have emerged from a variety of sources, leading to conflicting funding demands, goals, and priorities. Likewise, in response to the need for practical solutions to the environmental problems facing the Salton Sea, a large number of engineering proposals have emerged from a variety of sources, leading to significant questions about the relative feasibility and effectiveness of any of the proposed alternatives.

CONSENSUS PRINCIPLES

Leaders from the federal government, the State of California, the Torres Martinez Tribe and the Salton Sea Authority have met and discussed the need to take coordinated measures to address the challenges presented by the Salton Sea. There is an emerging consensus that governmental responses to the Salton Sea should be guided by a number of shared understandings, including the following:

1.  Rising salinity levels and fluctuating lake levels are threatening some of the Salton Sea's fish, wildlife, and recreational resources. Other environmental factors, in addition to salinity and lake levels, may be adversely impacting the Sea's resources.

3.  Governmental authorities should work together to identify prudent mitigation efforts that can be implemented as soon as practicable, so that the trend toward further deterioration of the Salton Sea resource can be slowed, stopped, and/or reversed. It is likely that additional scientific research will be needed to facilitate the identification and implementation of appropriate mitigation steps.

4.  Limited funds will be available to conduct type of scientific research that is needed to inform the decision-making process. Accordingly, research efforts need to be coordinated and prioritized to maximize the usefulness of scientific data to the decision-making process.

All efforts to address the health of the Salton Sea must be undertaken through a public process which obtains input from all interested stakeholders, including interested environmental organizations and private citizens.

NEXT STEPS

In order to begin working together toward the common goal of improving the health of the Salton Sea, the governmental authorities with a stake in the Salton Sea have discussed taking two important steps: (1) initiate an open environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to identify and evaluate specific options for addressing Salton Sea; and (2) establish a joint governmental coordinating mechanism to help coordinate and focus the efforts of the many governmental agencies who are involved in funding important research activities related to the Salton Sea.

I am pleased to report there is a general consensus that these steps should be taken. The details of how to implement the steps will require further consultation among the governmental parties and interested members of the public. Some of the ideas that I have for taking these steps are set forth below.

1 . Initiation of NEPA/CEOA Process

We are agreed that a NEPA/CEQA process should be initiated to evaluate the potential environmental impacts associated with various alternative actions that might be taken at the Salton Sea. I anticipate that the NEPA/CEQA process will take the following approach:

* Scoping of the NEPA/CEQA review will take full advantage of the analysis that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the Salton Sea Authority already has undertaken. The scoping process also will consider environmental factors that were not studied in the BOR/Salton Sea Authority alternatives analysis.

* The NEPA/CEQA process will produce an environmental impact statement that will facilitate the implementation of mitigation actions that can be implemented without extended delays.

* The Salton Sea Authority, working with the Bureau of Reclamation, will take the lead in the NEPA/CEQA process. Cooperating agencies will include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish & Game, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Water Resources.

* A schedule will be developed to move forward with the NEPA/CEQA process at a deliberate pace, recognizing the tension between the need to have adequate environmental analysis to make appropriate decisions, and the need to take concrete steps to respond to the Sea's environmental challenges.

* Scientific analysis needed to complete the NEPA/CEQA process will be coordinated with the assistance of the newly formed Salton Sea Research and Funding Coordination Committee, discussed below.

2.  Coordination and Prioritization of Research and Funding

Several governmental agencies are financing and implernenting a variety of research activities that should assist decision makers in addressing the health of the Salton Sea. Due to the urgency of moving forward, the large number of agencies that are involved, and the substantial scientific issues that face decision makers, I believe that a coordinating committee, which I would call the "Salton Sea Research and Funding Coordination Committee," should be established. The Committee would have the following membership and charter:

* The Committee would consist of high-level representatives of the four governments involved in the Salton Sea recovery effort: (1) the federal government; (2) the State of California; (3) the Salton Sea Authority; and (4) the Torres Martinez Indian Tribe.

* The Research and Funding Coordination Committee would facilitate the identification of research and/or other types of scientific evaluation needed to complete the NEPA/CEQA process in a timely fashion. The Committee also would identify and coordinate funding sources to complete such research or evaluation.

* The Research and Funding Coordination Committee would appoint a Science Subcommittee, which would be responsible for assisting the Committee in identifying and prioritizing research and evaluation needs. The Science Subcommittee would include scientists or other technical experts from the following agencies:

U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
California Department of Fish & Game
California Environmental Protection Agency
California Department of Water Resources
Salton Sea Authority
Torres Martinez Indian Tribe

Dr. Milton Friend, Director of the National Wildlife Heath Center, Biological Resources Division, USGS, would Chair the Science Subcommittee.

* The Research and Funding Coordination Committee would seek input from all interested parties, including environmental groups, citizens groups, and other interested parties and individuals. The Committee would seek to leverage federal and state-funded research on the Salton Sea with research opportunities provided by universities and other organizations.

CONCLUSION

I am hopeful that my visit to the Salton Sea, and my consultations with other governmental authorities, has helped to facilitate coordination among the many governmental agencies that have a common interest in addressing the environmental challenges that face the Sea. The steps that I am announcing today, based in consultations with the Salton Sea Authority, the State of California, the Torres Martinez Tribe, other federal agencies, and the Congressional delegation, are concrete, positive steps that put us on the right road toward finding solutions to the problems confronting the Salton Sea.