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Salton Sea: Could Ocean Water Import Be Long-Term Fix?

SALTON SEA — In many ways, California has stepped up in its commitments to the Salton Sea as tens of millions of dollars have flowed toward restoration efforts for smaller-scale projects planned over the next 10 years.

The shoreline of the Salton Sea has been receding for decades due to decreased agricultural runoff, leaving behind a toxic mix of sand, pesticides, and other toxins known as playa that can become airborne and cause health problems for residents in surrounding communities. | LUKE PHILLIPS PHOTO

Those projects will largely address potentially hazardous conditions to human and animal life brought on by exposed seabed and loss of bird habitat from ever-shrinking inflows of water.

Yet the reality is, these efforts are but baby steps and Band-Aids to the larger crisis of overall elevation of the sea and a lack of water to replenish a large landlocked lake that has no natural inlet or outside tributaries aside from a pair of agricultural drains in the New and Alamo rivers.

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Where is the big-picture fix, as outside interests look to Imperial County to quench their thirst, further reducing the possibility that Colorado River water could ever factor into the restoration of Salton Sea levels?

In a race against time to avert ecological disaster from becoming far worse, local stakeholders and environmental and social justice advocates for the Salton Sea are bringing attention to a possible long-range solution for the sea that again is gaining attention from the state as the first phase of the Salton Sea Management Plan gets underway.

Recently, nonprofit media company and sea restoration advocates, EcoMedia Compass, hosted a virtual forum to highlight one potential solution for restoring the ancient lakebed that was refilled in 1905 when a vast irrigation-infrastructure project to divert the Colorado River broke free of its chains created (or recreated) the Salton Sea.

Known as the “sea-to-sea” project, a series of representatives from private companies presented their ideas to save the dwindling Salton Sea by importing ocean water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, roughly 120 miles to the south.

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“This is a place where some of the greatest minds around envisioning a future for the Salton Sea region have come together to share their vision of what this place truly can become and what the Salton Sea deserves,” said Kerry Morrison, founder, and executive director of EcoMedia Compass, who hosted a Zoom conference on Jan. 31 to reacquaint the public with the “sea-to-sea” concept.

Representatives from six different companies presented six different plans to move the Mexican seawater to the Salton Sea, including building one or multiple pipelines, flooding the dry Laguna Salada lakebed west of Mexicali and building a pipeline from there, or extending the existing Coyote Canal, which stretches from the Sea of Cortez through a portion of Laguna Salada, north to the Salton Sea.

The Sea of Cortez is shown from the vantage point of Golfo de Santa Clara, Mexico. One long-term fix for the Salton Sea now being eyed is the importation of ocean water from the Sea of Cortez. | COURTESY PHOTO

The plans are ambitious, and so would be the cost for such an undertaking, estimated as high as $26 billion, which has been a sticking point for getting the project funded at the state and federal levels.

Imperial County Reacts to Costly Concept

Past studies, including those conducted by the Salton Sea Authority and the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, showed the idea of importing seawater to be too costly to be feasible, but the idea has again gained traction.

After inflows were further reduced to the sea in 2018 as part of the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement water transfer component with the San Diego County Water Authority, the concept started to be talked about publicly.

As the sea’s shores recede at an accelerated pace and the threat of ecological, financial, and health disasters loom large through exposed seabed and the fear of asthma-triggering — and potentially toxic — dust storms, some activists and politicians from both Imperial and Riverside counties have bolstered their calls for seawater import to become the long-term plan for Salton Sea restoration.

Members of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors have also voiced their approval of the sea-to-sea transfer plan but expressed skepticism about the idea being funded at the state or federal level.

“We’re not high on the list in the seats of the state and federal government, so it’s easy to forget about what’s happening down here,” said Ryan Kelley, Imperial County supervisor for District 4, which is home to a portion of the Salton Sea.

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Imperial County District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley. | COURTESY PHOTO

“We do see the value in it and share that goal of having a stable Salton Sea that draws people into development and recreation, but it’s going to have to be a win and a continued support that’s going to be able to take care of the infrastructure being built,” he said during an interview on Monday, Feb. 1. 

Kelley said that he and the Board of Supervisors have continually advocated for the Salton Sea at the state and federal levels but have not been able to garner much support for funding projects that will require billions of dollars and may or may not become financially self-sustaining.

“I applaud everyone for trying to bring attention to this, but I want to be realistic and say that, you know, you can take a look at the New River (for reference). That’s been sitting here for quite a while, the dirtiest river in North America, and it’s still flowing. … We have advocated in Washington and in Sacramento, and we will continue to advocate, but it doesn’t seem like the wheels have turned in that direction yet,” he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Kelley agreed that the sea-to-sea concept is the best hope for the long-term restoration of the sea, but also expressed frustration at the lack of action from the state and federal governments, saying that the plans have been reviewed several times but “it never seems to go anywhere.”

“My preference would be the sea-to-sea concept to restore the Salton Sea,” Michael Kelley said on Feb. 1. “And, if it’s financially unfeasible, then get the federal government involved. I told the governor himself — it was Gov. (Jerry) Brown at the time — I guarantee you if the Salton Sea issue was in the Sacramento Valley, or the L.A. basin, or the San Diego area, it would be taken care of in a heartbeat.

Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Kelley | COURTESY PHOTO

“We don’t have the population to muster enough votes to turn people over in the Legislature. So, we’re just a stepchild to the state,” the chairman added.

The California Natural Resources Agency decided to move forward with a feasibility study of ocean water import in November 2019 and issued a Request for Proposals to conduct the study, but as of 2021 they have not received any responses to the requests.

In January, several communities on the sea’s North Shore adopted resolutions supporting comprehensive analysis of the different alternatives for importing ocean water and asking the state to aggressively pursue an independent panel review of the alternatives.

The state has a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline to develop a long-term plan for the restoration of the sea as prescribed by the National Environmental Policy Act. The long-term plan is being developed while the state’s shorter-term, 10-year plan is being implemented. Several small-scale wetland restoration projects are being implemented around the sea, including a 4,110-acre project that broke ground near the mouth of the New River in January.

Although the importation concept is gaining favor, there is also the perimeter lake idea that has been publicly advocated in the past by both the Salton Sea Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District, under the direction of longtime Salton Sea advocate, former IID General Manager the late Kevin Kelley, who spoke of the district’s support for a “smaller, more sustainable sea.”

Supervisor Ryan Kelley, the late Kevin Kelley’s younger brother, said that he believes the idea of importing water from the Sea of Cortez could come to fruition one day, but it would need to contain a commercial component that would use the water coming from the project to produce some sort of byproduct that could be sold, be it salt, electricity, or fresh water.

“It has to be commercially viable,” Ryan Kelley said. “Somebody is going to have to agree, and it would be a larger entity like the state of California, to buy water from Mexico. They’re not going to just send it here for free, and how that becomes a commodity and is utilized to restore the sea and create some kind of ongoing funding for this project to be built out … it’s got to be something that’s financially viable.

“They’re going to have to figure out the benefits. There are true costs associated with conveying the water across,” Ryan Kelley explained. “We took up that support because we realized that there are benefits to it, having a stable shore, having commercial activity, and residential development and industrial.”

The sun sets over the embattled Salton Sea, where both short-range and long-term fixes are being eyed to restore the body of water created in 1905, when a diversion project on the Colorado River broke loose and filled the former Salton Sink. | LUKE PHILLIPS PHOTO

Michael Kelley agreed that commercialization of the project should be a key component and that it has been “part of the plans since day one.”

“I’ve heard that many, many times,” the county board chairman said. “There’s so many options, so many variables, there’s so many stories on the sea-to-sea concept, but it never has gotten off the battery box, and I don’t know why.

“I just don’t understand why people have dropped the potential of pursuing something that would be so critically important to the restoration of the Salton Sea. I heard everybody is wanting to get on board with it, but nothing is happening. It’s a long-term plan, but it shouldn’t be a long-term plan, it should be an immediate plan.”

Several Sea-to-Sea Plans So Far

Imperial Valley businessman Gary Jennings has been working on a low-cost version of the sea-to-sea import plan for more than a decade, and at the EcoMedia Compass conference on Jan. 31, he called on all of those proposing ideas for the plan to come together and develop the cheapest, most-feasible version of the project possible to present to the state in hopes that they will fund the project.

Jennings’ plan involved extending the existing Coyote Canal in Mexico to the border, and then piping the water from there to the Salton Sea. The Coyote Canal was built in the 1970s to take agricultural runoff away from Mexicali to the Laguna Salada wilderness area.

“This is just a ditch project,” he said. “California is not going to spend billions of dollars on this. We need to build the Kmart of canals. And I don’t think any of us are going to win this fight unless we all work together,” Jennings said. “We all must work together for our mutual benefit. If we don’t cooperate with each other, we fail.”

An aerial image of Laguna Salada near Mexicali is shown. The dry lakebed and lagoon are a possible path by which ocean water could be moved from the Sea of Cortez north to the Salton Sea as a long-term fix for the receding Salton Sea. | COURTESY IMAGE

At the other end of the spectrum, Agess Inc. Chief Executive Officer Nathan White described a large-scale plan that would aim to not only restore the Salton Sea, but to change the weather of the entire southwestern United States, restore the declining levels of water in the Colorado River Basin and restore wildlife habitats at Laguna Salada and the Colorado River Delta.

Agess’ proposed project would use tidal power to return ocean water to Laguna Salada and then pipe it from the border to the Salton Sea. White’s hypothesis is that reintroducing warm water to Laguna Salada would add water to the Colorado River Basin through evaporation.

He theorized that the evaporated water would bolster seasonal monsoons throughout the Southwest, dumping more water back into the river basin. White added that the “atmospheric conveyor belt” would push the increased moisture as far north as Wyoming.

“This project actually goes beyond just the ability to affect these three regional areas,” White said Jan. 31. “We can evaporate a lot of water into the Colorado River Basin, so this is really a national restoration of the Southwest. All this water that evaporates in this region and these wetlands around Laguna Salada and the Salton Sea can add water to the Colorado River Basin, which is a little different from the other projects you’ll see here tonight, that we can actually fully restore and add precipitation in the Colorado River Basin.” 

Richard Coles, senior vice president of water infrastructure at Cordoba Group, presented a less fleshed-out plan and noted that the company is still considering alternatives and feasibility.

Cordoba Group is putting together a plan that would pipe water from the Sea of Cortez, starting either at San Felipe or Golfo de Santa Clara, and running along either the west side or the east side of the Imperial Valley, respectively. Coles said that one of the biggest hurdles his company is looking to overcome is how to manage the salt byproducts of any desalination plan.

“Salinity management is a huge issue,” Coles said. “We believe that management of that salt would be critical to the long-term success of the project itself.”

Agess Inc. presented one of nine plans during a Zoom conference Jan. 31 to move ocean water from the Sea of Cortez to the Salton Sea. An Agess slide shows the company’s plan to add water to the Salton Sea via a pipeline from Laguna Salada, a dry lakebed that would be flooded to create a reservoir for ocean water from the Sea of Cortez. | COURTESY IMAGE

Michael Clinton, a former general manager of the IID, now with Las Vegas-based GEI Consultants, also expressed concern about what could be done with the estimated 100 million tons of salt that would need to be removed from ocean water every year before it is introduced into the Salton Sea.

Clinton said that his company is looking at different ways to dispose of the salt, including dumping it in abandoned mines or possibly back into the ocean. He said that he’s been working on a solution for the Salton Sea since the late 1990s.

“The potential solution has come to a point where we see a few constraints that are difficult to overcome,” said Clinton, adding that, like Agess, GEI has also started looking at solutions that will help to restore the Colorado River Basin as well as the Salton Sea.

“Unless there is an augmentation program for the Colorado River, there is no solution to the Salton Sea,” he said.

Geothermal Worldwide President and CEO Nikola Lakic presented a comprehensive plan that would refill Laguna Salada, redirect the New and Alamo rivers back to Mexico, and build three pipelines north to the Salton Sea, powered by solar panels on the pipelines themselves.

The easternmost pipeline would also connect to a state-of-the-art geothermal facility on the East Mesa that would use ocean water from the pipeline to generate electricity, potable water, and use the geothermal brine to extract battery-grade lithium. Lakic said the project has the potential to create more than $1 billion in revenue each year. A second phase would involve an additional pipeline from Long Beach to the north shore of the Salton Sea.

“It’s a comprehensive design, it’s huge,” Lakic said. “It’s the project of the century. It could be compared to the Hoover Dam in the ’30s.”

Roberto Cossio, president of Mexicali-based Quadrant II, was pessimistic about the idea of refilling Laguna Salada, saying that it would cause social issues with the Cocopah tribe, which owns one-third of the land in question.

“They don’t want La Salada flooded and there are many reasons for that and most of them are social,” Cossio said. “We cannot deposit residual hypersaline waters in Mexico, we cannot cause social distress. Those are things that we have to take into consideration for each one of these projects.”

Right now, Quadrant II holds exclusive development rights in the Laguna Salada, and Cossio said that he sees his company as “facilitators” who would like to partner with an American entity. Quadrant II would bring water to the border via a 100-kilometer pipeline from a series of 160 beach wells in the Colorado River Delta and seek an American partner to bring it the rest of the way to the Salton Sea.

Cossio was one of the many voices calling on all of those working on separate plans to come together.

“I think it’s time to make a list of weaknesses and strong points of all the projects in order to put together a real solution,” he said. “We cannot prevail by making a solitary effort. We need to find common ground and push this project to the end.”

The final presenter at the conference, Tom Sephton with Sephton Water Technologies, said that selling salt byproducts would be key to the success of any of the projects, pointing out that the value of and demand for salt has been growing steadily in recent years.

Sephton’s plan involves using a canal to bring water north from the Sea of Cortez, through Laguna Salada, and then to a desalination plant that would produce electricity, potable water, and 15-20 million tons of salt per year. The project would cost $600 million to build, and Septhon said that it has the potential to bring in billions of dollars in profit every year.

“Salt is worth, ton for ton, a hundred times as much as purified water,” Sephton said. “You have to use a canal to efficiently deliver water, salt being a hundred times more valuable per ton, you can afford to bag it, load it on a rail car or truck, and ship it to customers outside the area. You can also use salt for various industrial processes, leather tanning, food processing … both relevant in Imperial County.”

EcoMedia’s Morrison ended the proceedings with another call for unity.

“There are some overlapping ideas and there are some concepts that can complement each other, so we encourage you to find a way to work together and present some of these plans either as one or simplify this so that it’s the state’s obvious choice,” he said. “You are all experts, let’s find a way to make the state understand that this is the obvious complimentary choice.”

The sun sets over the embattled Salton Sea, where both short-range and long-term fixes are being eyed to restore the body of water created in 1905, when a diversion project on the Colorado River broke loose and filled the former Salton Sink. | LUKE PHILLIPS PHOTO