Red Hill Bay at the Salton Sea is shown in this 2008 file photo. | COURTESY PHOTO

Hearing: Millions Available for Red Hill Bay, IID Calls Witnesses

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has more than $3.3 million available for the Red Hill Bay project at the Salton Sea, it was learned during a second day of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board’s consideration of a petition against the Imperial Irrigation District over the project.

The hearing board met for the first time Dec. 18 and again on Friday, Jan. 29, for the second part of its hearing to discuss a petition by Air Pollution Control Officer Matt Dessert for an order of abatement against the IID over violations of air district rules and regulations tied to the project, the land on which IID owns.

An order for abatement is an enforcement action that requires an owner or operator who is out of compliance to take specific action to get back into compliance with air district rules.

Discussion has centered around exposed Salton Sea playa, or seabed, at the Red Hill Bay Project.

The revelation that more than $3 million in federal monies are available for the project at the southern shore of the sea came in a letter from Fish and Wildlife that was part of the testimony on day two of the hearing and that was shared with the board.

“These monies were originally provided to IID (by the Wildlife Conservation Board), but the Service gained access when IID did not complete the project,” according to a letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Project Leader Chris Schoneman. “The Service can complete the project, but only if IID ensures long term access (at least 25 years) to these lands, as the 25-year project life is stipulated by the WCB grant agreement.”

A closeup of the sign touting the Red Hill Bay project can be seen along Garst Road near Red Hill Bay on the southern end of the Salton Sea on Sunday, Jan. 31. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

In the letter, dated Jan. 27, Schoneman said the Fish and Wildlife Service stands ready to complete the project and is awaiting IID’s cooperation, a far cry from what IID officials said at the first hearing when they indicated an unwillingness to build out the project themselves, instead citing a lack of movement by the federal government.

“We categorically disagree with IID’s characterization of our role in and efforts towards completion of the Red Hill Bay project,” according to the letter. “In fact, the Service has tried repeatedly since 2010 to work with IID to complete the project but has been met with resistance and obfuscation.”

Witnesses Called at Hearing

The Imperial Irrigation District got its first chance to call witnesses Jan. 29 as it defended itself against accusations that it violated air-quality rules.

After four hours of testimonials by IID staff, the hearing board continued the hearing to a later date that has not yet been announced. This was the second continuance for this issue.

The APCD contends the IID has been an irresponsible landowner, while IID officials say the air district was too quick to push forward with notices of violation.

IID officials claim that the APCD is overstepping its job.

Imperial Irrigation District Water Department Manager Tina Shields | COURTESY PHOTO

“It became apparent in our ongoing discussions with APCD that they weren’t simply wanting a (best-available control measures) project on site, which IID intends to implement,” said IID Water Department Manager Tina Shields. (But) “that they wanted to force IID to build the Red Hill Bay project envisioned by Fish and Wildlife Service. So, it was beyond simply addressing air-quality issues.

“That’s a challenge for IID,” she continued. “We’re not a resource agency. A saline habitat project has a lot of complexities and operating it in perpetuity is a challenge for an irrigation and drainage district. We’re really focused on securing water supplies for this community and for agriculture.”

The Red Hill Bay project is a complicated project, especially considering the Salton Sea conditions change so frequently, Shields added. 

“IID fully intends to comply with all air-quality requirements,” she said. “We want to cooperate with the major stakeholders at the Salton Sea as we always have. We want to be a responsible landowner and a good neighbor, but we cannot realistically take on the role of the federal government and create a refuge with this unquantified environmental risk.

“IID in the near term has proposed to install (best-available control measures),” she said, “not the particular Red Hill Bay project.”

When asked about working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Shields was shown an email she had written to Schoneman saying the district was waiting for a resolution of the notice of violation before knowing how to proceed.

Shields said the district has not moved forward with a long-term agreement over the Red Hill Bay property because of the type of agreement Fish and Wildlife Service had wanted for the property.

Although no IID board members offered testimony during the hearing, IID board Vice President JB Hamby did send a letter to the editor of this newspaper on Saturday, Jan. 30, calling the APCD a “rogue agency” over its abatement order.

The letter can be read in its entirety here.

Public Comments During Hearing

One difference at this hearing was the voices of the public. While no public comment was heard at the Dec. 18 hearing, this one started with a half dozen individuals discussing the process and problems.

“Destroying the (Red Hill Bay) project by instead adopting dry mitigation, paid for by tax dollars, as well as receiving royalties for geothermal on this property looks to me like gross negligence and corruption, and would be setting the actions of this agency on the wrong side of history,” Kerry Morrison, executive director of The EcoMedia Compass and former mayor of West Shores, told the board. “Nothing works better for dust mitigation than to keep it wet. It’s not too late to finish the wetland you started.

“We encourage IID and everyone involved to just finish what you started and keep something alive,” he added.

Others, like Jordan Sisson, an environmental attorney for Comite Civico Del Valle, called on the hearing board to not accept what the Imperial Irrigation District has offered.

“IID does not dictate what is (best available controlled measures),” he said. “That’s the job of the (air pollution control) district.”

Birds gather at Red Hill Bay along the Salton Sea’s southern end in this state Department of Water Resources photo from November 2015. | COURTESY PHOTO
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