Today, the California State Water Resources Control Board will host an annual workshop to update constituents on the Salton Sea Management Plan (SSMP), the state’s plan to address public health issues and build habitat at the sea. Groups working at the Salton Sea are calling on the state to improve the SSMP, especially in its efforts to engage communities and incorporate their input into projects at the Sea.
2020 saw positive momentum for the Salton Sea. The Newsom administration expanded staff capacity working on the Sea, initiated the Species Conservation Habitat project, and directed funding to projects to control dust and create habitat.
Amid this progress, the Salton Sea continues to be an urgent environmental and public health crisis — toxic dust is sickening local residents and migratory birds are losing critical habitat. Residents are losing faith in a process that they don’t feel has engaged them as meaningful partners in decisions that will impact their communities. Organizations working to address environmental injustices around the Salton Sea are joining residents in calling for the state to improve its efforts and quickly implement projects to avoid the growing environmental disaster harming the health and well-being of the hundreds of thousands of people living nearby.
“To those living and working near the northern end of the Salton Sea, we have yet to see movement on meaningful projects intended to address public health concerns,” said Patricia Leal-Gutierrez, program manager with Alianza Coachella Valley. “Now is the time for Governor Newsom to truly commit funding and support for community-driven short- and long-term projects that include amenities that meet the needs of the people living closest to the Salton Sea.”
“We’ve spent the past several years working with residents around the Salton Sea to ensure that their health, environment and well-being are protected from the sea’s decline,” said Rebecca Zaragoza, regional policy manager with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “The experiences of the affected communities will be a crucial element that needs to be prioritized as we work together with the state to ensure protection and results. There is no better time than now to be equitable and transparent and elevate the community’s vision. The Newsom administration has a great opportunity to protect public health and the environment, and effectively advance climate resiliency in the Salton Sea region.”
Major concerns regarding the implementation of the SSMP include:
- The state can improve its engagement with communities that live near the Salton Sea, better share information about the status of projects and ensure community input informs SSMP projects.
- While the SSMP had a goal of covering 3,500 acres of playa by the end of 2020, to date only 755 acres have been completed.
- The state must develop a long-term solution for reducing contamination and improving water quality for water flowing into the Salton Sea.
- Stakeholders are asking for regular updates on the program’s scope, goals, annual costs and efforts made to provide public access and long-term maintenance of SSMP projects.
- The SSMP and long term planning projects have the opportunity to improve the air quality and overall quality of life for residents who live around the Salton Sea by investing in: community greening and vegetation projects, recreational spaces, community centers, housing, specialized public health centers, clinics, sidewalks, and lighting.
“California is starting to make progress on Salton Sea habitat and dust suppression projects,” said Michael Cohen, senior associate at the Pacific Institute. “But the state still needs to describe the goals and objectives of its projects, what other projects it has planned for the next several years, and needs to engage with partners and local communities. California’s recent efforts to start projects and its renewed commitment to the Sea are encouraging. We look forward to working together to transform this commitment into meaningful and substantial progress.”
COVID-19 has further highlighted the disparities facing the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities. Organizations expressed concern that the pandemic will exacerbate existing challenges in the Salton Sea region and that any chance for economic success will be lost without a long-term plan and fast action from the state.
“Despite progress made in the last year, we still need to make a meaningful effort to catch up on deadlines for dust suppression, habitat remediation and other restoration projects at the Salton Sea,” said Brandon Dawson, interim director of Sierra Club California. “While we work through the challenges of building projects, especially during this pandemic, communities are still left breathing harmful dust from the sea’s drying lakebed. As we come out of this public health crisis, the Newsom administration has an unprecedented opportunity to prioritize Salton Sea projects that aid economic recovery, healthy communities and climate resilience.”
“We’re encouraged by the state recently breaking ground on the species conservation habitat project at the sea’s southern end — work is moving forward,” said Frank Ruiz, director of Audubon California’s Salton Sea Program. “Work can’t move forward quickly enough. A warming climate will put even more pressure on the shrinking sea, further threatening already declining migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway and worsening air quality for the 650,000 residents who live nearby.”