It’s the question one congressman asked during the first U.S. Congressional hearing about the Salton Sea since 1997, which also included political jabs about climate change and COVID-19.
State and federal representatives came together to talk about the federal government’s obligation at the receding sea during the Sept. 24 Water, Oceans, and Wildlife hearing, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee.
As California Natural Resources Agency Director Wade Crowfoot and others pointed out during the hearing, the federal government is a major landowner at the Salton Sea, through the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers is the permitting agency for some projects at the sea.
The federal government’s “partnership with California to stabilize the sea is essential,” Crowfoot said. “It’s essential because the sea provides incomparable habitat on the Pacific Flyway, which is the largest migration of life on the planet. It’s particularly important because California has lost approximately 97 percent of its wetlands in the last 200 years, but perhaps more important because a receding sea worsens air quality. That is a major public health crisis in Imperial and Riverside counties, to tens of thousands of Californians and, of course, Americans.”
The state has started phase 1 of the Salton Sea Management Plan, and part of the hearing allowed the federal representatives to check in on that management plan.
“This hearing is intended to examine both federal and state efforts to restore the Salton Sea,” said subcommittee chair Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, Calif. “It’s disappointing that the administration has chosen once again to not attend these proceedings. The committee invited Commissioner (Brenda) Burman of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is the largest landowner at the Salton Sea. We also invited Director (Aurelia) Skipwith of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a wildlife refuge at the sea and is partnering with the state on wetland habitat creation. Neither are here today to tell us about the status of their agencies’ work because in the middle of a global pandemic the administration has chosen to deride our committee for doing what so many responsible Americans have been forced to do this year, to convene virtually to protect ourselves and our communities.”
Huffman has spoken multiple times with representatives of the region about the Salton Sea.
“There are some who would call the Salton Sea an accident … because it was created due to the failure of a major irrigation canal in 1905, but I think that that narrow perspective overlooks both history and present reality,” Huffman said. “This is an ancient lakebed after all previously known as the Salton Sink. It had over time intermittently filled over the last several thousand years.
“More importantly, that dismissive viewpoint ignores the environmental justice imperative to ensure that local citizens have clean air to breath, not polluted with arsenic and other contaminants, and it ignores 400 species of migratory birds that stand to lose major habitat along the Pacific Flyway,” he added.
Some Not So Impressed
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, Calif., was not so impressed with the Salton Sea.
“While California’s watersheds are going up in smoke right now due to years of bad forest management, this subcommittee holds a virtual hearing about perpetuating a historic accident, the Salton Sea. So as our watersheds burn, let’s talk about the Salton Sea.
“… It was not nature, but rather a man-made engineering accident that sent water from the Colorado River into this dry lakebed for 18 months before it could be stopped,” he continued. “Ever since then, this colossal environmental mistake has been perpetuated by using surplus Colorado River water.
“As that surplus is claimed for other purposes, water flow to the Salton Sea has decreased, and the accidental lake continues to obey nature’s preference that it dry up,” he said. “So, the question is now what to do.
“The state of California seems committed to continue to pour millions of dollars and billions of gallons of fresh water into the Salton Sink. … It seems to me there are two ways to address this issue. One is to continue to spend enormous sums of money to maintain a salt lake where nature doesn’t want one. That’s money much better spent on watershed and forest management and water development.
“The other is to recognize that there are much higher priorities that should take precedent, including providing fresh water for people,” McClintock said. “Perpetuating an engineering accident that the federal government had nothing to do with is certainly not a high federal priority. Now sure that would mean more dust kicking up from a dry lakebed, but that’s true of any dry lakebed. And though cloth masks are useless in stopping aerosolized viral particles … they are very effective at stopping dust particles. And they’re already required apparel for the radical chic of California.
“It’s true it would mean lost habitat to the non-native species that still inhabit the dying lake, but a fish hatchery and more viable habitats could easily compensate,” he added. “And as we’ve seen in Northern California, thriving agriculture can provide plenty of refuge for migrating fowl.
“It’s the responsibility of California to decide what it wants to do with this mistake and then do it. It’s the responsibility of the federal government to change the laws that make active forest management, watershed protection and water storage cost prohibitive. At the moment, neither the state nor the federal government is meeting its responsibility.”
McClintock questioned state officials on whether they were coming to the federal government to bail the state out of the responsibility of restoring the sea.
E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California Water Resources Control Board, was quick to say the state is not looking to be bailed out, but rather the federal government is a large landowner and has a historical involvement at the Salton Sea.
“What is going to be incumbent upon us if we’re going to be successful is to not continue to create this idea that it can be any one entity that will be what creates success here,” he said. “We’re here in 2020, and it’s obvious it’s going to take the full cooperation of the federal government if we’re going to be successful.”
Legislation in the Works
Some are working to move the federal government to action. U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Coachella, who called for the hearing to take place, plans to introduce legislation called “The Salton Sea Public Health and Environmental Protection Act.”
The bill aims to require the Department of Interior to take action and work with California, while also increasing coordination between agencies and requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to do additional air-quality monitoring at the sea.
“This issue isn’t theoretical for me or my constituents. … I understand first-hand what the dying Salton Sea means to my constituents and that it has ramifications for public health, the economy, and the ecosystem as a whole,” Ruiz said. “Today’s hearing is the first congressional hearing since 1997, which means that 23 years ago Congress saw a need to address the federal role at the sea and yet today we find ourselves on the verge of a crisis. I’m committed to making change, and I am urging everyone here to commit with me and Rep. (Juan) Vargas (D-Chula Vista) to making change at the Salton Sea.”
Momentum is building with the state and local groups, but there is still federal inaction, he said.
“My patience is running thin,” Ruiz added. “I’ve called for an all-hands approach to break ground, expedite and complete projects at the Salton Sea, and that must include the administration.
“The federal government owns half the land at the Salton Sea and has a significant impact in managing that land. They cannot sit on the sidelines and leave my constituents high and dry while the shoreline disappears in front of their eyes.”
Vargas, Imperial County’s Congressional representative, was also in attendance at the Sept. 24 hearing.