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Sacrificing Farmland Carries High Price, Some Fear

By Kelly Grant
The Imperial Valley Press,May 24, 2001

Preliminary plans to lower the salinity of the Salton Sea may be a step toward saving it, but some worry the potential sacrifice of Imperial Valley farmland may be too high a price to pay.

While a preferred project has yet to be named, consideration has been narrowed down to several methods. Among those are line-shower and ground-based blower evaporation systems and solar evaporation ponds.

Among the cheapest methods are flat land solar ponds costing 67 cents per ton of salt each pond module would remove. Solar ponds on steeper land or in the sea itself would cost 98 cents and $3.33 per ton of salt, respectively.

According to a recent restoration plan status report by the Salton Sea Authority and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the land most suitable for flat land solar ponds includes land used for farming in the Northend.

"I donít know if it (the on-land solar pond method) will be identified as preferred, but it looks good because of the cost analysis," said Salton Sea Authority Board of Directors member Andy Horne.

If the on-land solar ponds are chosen, Horne says as much as 8 percent of Imperial Valley farmland could be converted to evaporation ponds.

"What's the impact of that gonna be?" Horne wondered.

Horne says an 8 percent reduction in farmland may not translate exactly into an 8 percent reduction in Imperial Valley farming workforce or production, but he thinks the reduction would be somewhere near that.

"My assumption would be evaporation ponds wouldnít create that many jobs," Horne said.

"The impacts need to be analyzed and mitigated," Horne said.

Lauren Grizzle, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau and Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, said while 8 percent, or nearly 40,000 acres, is a large amount of land, the reduction doesnít have to be a negative thing.

"One of our problems is we farm too much, produce too much," Grizzle said.

The result is lower prices for crops, she said.

"We donít want to farm bigger, we want to farm smarter," Grizzle said.

"If growers were compensated it could be positive," Grizzle said.

Complicating the issue is the possible transfer of Imperial Irrigation District water to the San Diego County Water Authority.

"The transfer would require the conservation of waters that would otherwise flow from Imperial Valley farmland into the Salton Sea. A reduction of inflows to the sea would increase salinity, bringing a need for more desalination measures, be they evaporation ponds or otherwise," Horne said.

In such an event, thereís a possibility the Salton Sea could be fed with water from IID that would have gone to solar pond-converted farmland.

"The reason theyíre looking at farmland is to free up some of that water to make up for water transferred out," Horne, also an IID director, said.

"It's a question mark," said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.

"If the sea loses those flows (because of the water transfer) it's next to impossible to save the Salton Sea," Kirk said.

"The idea is that agricultural lands would give their water to make up for that loss," he said.

"If the transfer doesnít happen, the extra water wonít be needed," Kirk said.

In the event the transfer goes through, water may be provided to the Salton Sea to mitigate the environmental impacts of the transfer, he added.

"The option of solar ponds is looking very attractive right now," Kirk said, although he concedes more discussion about the political, environmental and legal ramifications is needed before any action is taken.

Kirk said the third party impacts of such a project aren't known.

Identifying the best method for salt reduction is no easier for Horne's fellow Salton Sea Authority board member Wally Leimgruber, an Imperial County supervisor.

"Salt is building up. Any kind of relief of salt is good," Leimgruber said, although he recognizes the proposed methods all have their downsides.

"Taking farm ground out of production is not my first choice," he said.

Other, steeper land is available for solar ponds, but the sea water would need to be pumped up there, increasing the cost, Leimgruber said.

The line-shower method, in which sea water is blown into a fine mist to evaporate and leftover salt is collected in basins, may cause salt to blow onto nearby land, Leimgruber said.

"That allows evaporation, but wind conditions may cause salt to drift," Leimgruber said.

The Salton Sea Authority and U.S. Department of the Interior will propose a preferred project within the next two months. After environmental reports are drawn up and made available for public viewing, itís up to lawmakers to provide funding.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.