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Salton Sea Authority Backs Water Transfer
Critics Claim Vote Damages Efforts to Restore The Sea

By Lukas Velush
The Desert Sun, June 28th, 2001

LA QUINTA -- The group charged with saving the Salton Sea voted Wednesday to support legislation that critics say will likely lead to the death of the sea they're supposed to protect.

The Salton Sea Authority, a board of supervisors and water district board members from Riverside and Imperial counties, voted 4-2 to support legislation that would help California reduce its use of Colorado River to what the state is legally allowed.

But the problem for the sea is the plan the board supported relies on taking water away from the Salton Sea.

Without the water, the price of keeping salinity levels in the sea safe for fish and the birds that feed on the fish climbs from about $200 million to more than $1 billion, a price tag critics say will never be funded.

"This certainly makes our project that much more difficult," said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.

Up to now the Salton Sea Authority has focused on developing a plan to keep salt levels in the sea safe for fish and birds, and to keep the sea's shoreline as intact as possible. The authority's plan has been delayed multiple times but is due out within 60 days.

But the water districts responsible for reducing California's use of Colorado River water from 5.2 million acre-feet per year to 4.4 million acre-feet per year are under pressure to meet a deadline to get their "Quantification Agreement" settled by the end of the 2002.

All provisions of that agreement are approved except a transfer of 200,000 acre-feet of water per year from Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego Water Authority.

If the transfer is not complete by the end of 2002, then the deal is off. That would mean California would immediately have to reduce its use of Colorado River.

The Quantification Agreement, on the other hand, gives the state 15 years to reduce its use. It also gives the Coachella Valley Water District 800,000 acre-feet of new water every year, water that the district says the valley needs to grow and recharge its overpumped aquifer.

Here's the sticky part: The environmental impacts the IID-San Diego water transfer would have on the Salton Sea are so significant and expensive that they can't be mitigated in time to allow the Quantification Agreement to meet its deadlines.

So, to speed things up, the water districts are asking Congress to give them $60 million to help pay for the impacts.

But the watershed language in the bill is a provision that takes liability for all of the environmental impacts of the water transfer off the shoulders of the water districts and puts it on the back of the state and federal governments.

The legislation is due to be submitted to Congress by the Fourth of July. The authority's support is viewed as key if efforts to get the legislation approved by the end of the year are to be successful.

"This is absolutely the endgame of the Salton Sea," said Norm Niver, West Shores Chamber of Commerce president. "As far as I'm concerned it's an end run around the environmental review."

The authority board members who voted to support the proposed legislation say they had to support the agreement to avoid having the larger water districts from Southern California swoop down and take the water.

They also say the $60 million will be used on restoration if Congress authorizes the much-delayed restoration project by 2007. If not, the money will be spent on establishing endangered species habitat around the edges of the sea while the larger sea is ignored.

"The best thing for the sea is supporting the Quantification Agreement," said Peter Nelson, an authority board member who serves on the Coachella Valley Water District.

Supporters also say they are getting proclamations from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and San Diego Water Authority that say they support restoring the Salton Sea.



Lukas Velush covers the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at (760) 778-4625 or via e-mail at Lukas.Velush@thedesertsun.com.