Those who took part in a virtual hearing on the Salton Sea on Tuesday afternoon, May 25, included Assembly member Eduardo Garcia (bottom right), D-Coachella, and California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot (bottom left). | ZOOM CAPTURE

Salton Sea the Subject of Audubon Online Hearing

“Why is it so hard to get something built on the ground there?”

It was a question asked of panelists discussing the Salton Sea on Tuesday, May 25.

State and local officials were asked a number of questions about the drying sea during a one-hour online forum.

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

The Red Hill Bay project that stalled after breaking ground in 2015 was one of the topics panelists discussed. 

“Should we be worried this is a sign hitting these much more ambitious topics will be impossible?” asked moderator Sammy Roth, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. 

“That’s a fair question, and I’ll recognize that we’ve heard from so many residents living around the sea just a real skepticism on whether any governmental agency will actually make progress, visible, helpful progress at the sea because of a situation like the Red Hill Bay project,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.

“Just backing up a bit, the scale and the complicated nature of the problem was paralyzing for the state government for a long time, and it was with the recognition that with the transfer of water, which meant less inflow into the sea, it meant major challenges. But it wasn’t until just a handful of years ago that state agencies took it upon themselves to say ‘OK. We need a plan.’ And that plan is the task force that developed the Salton Sea Management Plan and the water board took it one step further to require our agency to hold us accountable in meeting that plan.

“The Salton Sea Management Plan is a 10-year plan and it focuses on 30,000 acres of dust suppression and restored habitat,” he continued. “These projects are terribly complicated because of the questions around the hydrology, the inflows into the lake, and also the varied ownership of the sea. Many agencies actually own the sea. So planning these projects so they actually do what they’re intended to without impacting others, like local farmers and communities, takes a long time.

“I’m really really proud of the fact that we’re moving forward on the 4,000 acre species conservation habitat project at the mouth of the New River,” Crowfoot added. “I think your point is well taken about Red Hill Bay. That continues to be a challenging project that the federal agency is working on… Our focus on species habitat conservation project is to show we can get projects done on the ground at the sea. We’ve got folks from Imperial County actually at work developing a project today. That demonstrates we can move forward . Frankly though we have to move forward on multiple projects at once.

“… I never argue when people say there’s been broken promises. I say agreed,” he said. “Our focus now is to make demonstrative progress.”

Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, agreed with the goal now being to make progress on projects. There is a 10-year plan in place, but that timeframe is ticking down, and the focus needs to be on completing projects. 

“The sea is not the only body of water that is similarly challenged,” he said. “We can be a pilot project and a leader.”

There are some real problems on the ground, added Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the only elected official on the panel. 

“We need to have real talk here,” he said. “The local agencies along with the state agencies need to do a better job in coordinating our planning and permitting processes. The fact is that’s the same issue that’s taking place at the Red Hill Bay marina and that was one of the biggest issues the state had with some of the local agencies in order to get this project off the ground. 

“That’s where we’re losing a lot of time, energy being spent, and quite frankly the longer we wait, the higher cost the projects will be,” he added. “We really need to hunker down and get on the same page with our local agencies. And this is a message to IID, Imperial County, our air quality districts as well as our state agencies, that we need to make sure that we’re putting the threats that are in existence, these public health and ecological threats that are before us that we all talk about consistently, and make sure we get to the common places so that we can execute these projects.” 

While Garcia was the only elected official on the panel, he isn’t the only one who’s been critical of the IID regarding the Red Hill Bay project. 

On May 20, Rep. Raul Ruiz and Rep. Juan Vargas wrote a joint letter to the IID and Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for answers as to why the project has stalled. 

“The Salton Sea is the most pressing environmental and public health challenge facing our constituents,” according to the letter. “The Red Hill Bay Project will not only contribute to the improved health of the Sea and the surrounding communities, but will also demonstrate to the public that cooperation between federal, state and local agencies and organizations can lead to successful environmental protection projects.”

The letter asked for specific answers by June 17.

Assemblyman Garcia had specific words about the Red Hill Bay project at the May 25 hearing. 

“It almost seems securing the money is getting easier than getting these projects off the ground,” Garcia said. “And for many years, getting the funding was the hardest part for any effort along the Salton Sea.

“We need federal government partners to step up. There is no question that they have a huge responsibility here. We have a great congressman on the north side and south side of the sea, but quite frankly we have yet to see action and resources make their way to the community for purposes of making sure we can expand the 10-year plan that’s focused on public health mitigation and eco habitat restoration,” he said.

“This isn’t a callout. This is simply saying we need your help. We need to collaborate. We need to work closer together because the community are all waiting for us to take strong action on this.”

The panel wasn’t only made up of government officials, but also an advocate for the region, Adriana Torres. She is a North Shore high school senior who has been working as a youth advocate for the region she lives in. 

“I hope it can be a safe environment,” she said when asked by the moderator what she would like the sea to look like. “My fear is that it will dry up and the surrounding community will just become uninhabitable, so we just wouldn’t be able to live here anymore, and we would just see our homes turn into wastelands. That’s my fear, and I just hope we can come up with a long-term solution to the Salton Sea so that future generations can also enjoy its beauty.”

When asked why people from throughout the state should care about the future of the sea, she didn’t mince words.

“This isn’t just a local health hazard,” she said. “It’s a collective health hazard.”

She added, it’s only a matter of time before it affects everyone in the state.

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