California receives $70 million in federal funding for Salton Sea restoration. Here’s why.

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This week’s announcement of $70 million of federal funding into Salton Sea restoration is a big deal. This funding from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) marks the first major federal funding into our effort to stabilize and restore the Sea. It’s important to share how it happened and what it will achieve.


But first an explanation of the Salton Sea for those unfamiliar. The Salton Sea region is one of California’s most beautiful regions and one of its most challenged. The Sea is California’s largest inland water body. It’s a unique lake with very salty water, no natural outlet, and high levels of evaporation.

The Salton Sea sits in a low-lying basin where water collected during various periods over millennia. It is a place of great importance to Native American tribes, who have inhabited these lands for thousands of years. In 1905, nearby irrigation canals burst after spring floods and water flowed into the basin for two years before the canals could be repaired. For decades, Salton Sea water levels stayed high from water running into the Sea from Imperial Valley farms. The Sea supported active communities and a bustling economy.

In 2003, California water users initiated the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the country, called the Quantification Settlement Agreement or QSA. Responding to the need to reduce water usage from the Colorado River, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) began transferring water supplies to San Diego, which in turn funded water conservation and efficiency investments that enable Imperial Valley farmers to maintain agricultural productivity with less water. This resulted in less water flowing into the Sea.

In recent years, the Salton Sea has shrunk with reduced inflows and exposed lakebed known as playa, which releases small dust particles that worsen air quality. Air quality is already severely challenged in the Imperial Valley, so limiting harmful dust from the Salton Sea is critically important. Also, a shrinking and increasingly salty lake impacts animal habitat, including birds travelling the Pacific flyway that rely on the Sea. In response, our agency has established a Salton Sea Management Program to restore conditions at the Sea and the State Water Board is overseeing our efforts. We’ve made important progress as we work to accelerate projects.

Current Situation

Over the past two decades, the Colorado River Basin has been in massive drought. In response, in recent years water users across seven states and Mexico have been working with the US Bureau of Reclamation to stabilize water supplies in the basin. As conditions worsened, things got really bad and last year at this time Lake Mead, which is the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, was under threat of losing its ability to export water and generate electricity. This would have been catastrophic for the region.

In response, California water agencies stepped up and along with their partners in the lower basin states of Arizona and Nevada volunteered to conserve several million-acre feet of water in Lake Mead over four years to stabilize its water supply. This was a major step forward that helped to catalyze a shared effort among California, Arizona and Nevada that ultimately was accepted by the BOR as the near-term strategy to stabilize the basin. Throughout this process, the Newsom Administration and local water agencies made it clear that expanded conservation would only be possible with an intensified shared effort to stabilize conditions at the Sea.

President Biden and Congress provided major support in this regional effort to stabilize the Colorado River Basin by appropriating $4 billion within the Inflation Reduction Act to help stabilize the Colorado River basin and enable its sustainable future. This funding enables short-term conservation and long-term permanent water savings through infrastructure upgrades. We are deeply thankful to our California Congressional delegation for championing this funding, led by Senator Padilla and Congressman Ruiz.

Ultimately, this voluntary conservation by local water agencies is only possible because BOR, our agency, IID and Coachella Valley Water District established a landmark agreement to address impacts to the Salton Sea from expanded water conservation. Importantly, within this agreement BOR committed $250 million into near-term projects to stabilize the Salton Sea if local water agencies implement their planned conservation programs. This agreement also establishes commitments from all of us to move quickly and effectively to stabilize the Sea.

Looking Forward

This week, we mark the first tranche of this funding being transferred into the Salton Sea Management Program by BOR to stabilize conditions at the Salton Sea. It was able to take place after the IID Board approved the first year of its conservation program in recent days. This $70M is important and timely. It will be utilized to expand the Species Conservation Habitat Project, the largest ever project at Sea that inundates over 4,000 acres to limit dust emission and restore healthy habitat. The federal funding announced this week would enable the initial expansion of that project at the southern edge of the sea, to increase dust suppression and environmental habitat.

This progress is only possible thanks to unprecedented collaboration between federal, tribal, state and local government and a range of local leaders and groups. We can take a moment to be proud of this shared progress, with the recognition of much work ahead of us.