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Official Hopeful That Deal May Help Save Salton Sea

The head of a key state agency warns that some problems will remain. The legislation is to be the subject of a hearing today in Sacramento.

September 05, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

The top official in a governmental agency dedicated to saving the Salton Sea said Thursday he is guardedly optimistic that legislation being cobbled together to save a mega-water deal could help reverse the long, slow decline of the troubled body of water straddling Riverside and Imperial counties.

But Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, warned that his optimism was tempered because the key issues of money, air pollution and the size of the sea will remain unsettled, even after passage of bills meant to save the water sale between Imperial Valley farmers and San Diego.

"I think the deal is much better for the Salton Sea than it was six, 12 or 18 months ago," Kirk said. "There's been incredible movement."

A hearing of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee is tentatively set for today in Sacramento to consider legislation designed to rescue the Imperial-San Diego deal and satisfy the Bush administration that California, after 10 years of arm-twisting by Washington, is finally learning to live within its allocation from the Colorado River.

The goal of state officials, including Gov. Gray Davis, is to win approval of the legislation before the Legislature adjourns next week. Davis believes that the San Diego-Imperial deal is essential if the state is to avoid water shortages.

Disputes about who will pay for Salton Sea restoration projects have proven to be a major sticking point in fevered negotiations involving the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, San Diego County Water Authority, Coachella Valley Water District and Imperial Irrigation District.

A tentative agreement among the four feuding agencies could provide about $300 million for the sea. But it is unclear whether that would be enough money to arrest its decline, a sign of how badly distressed the 35-mile-long sea, once a vacation paradise, has become.

Still, officials stressed that the tentative agreement of the four agencies is a major reversal of fortune for a body of water seemingly ignored by the state for decades.

"We're not home free yet, but this represents nothing less than the greatest opportunity that has ever presented itself for the Salton Sea," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Even if the bills pass, the agreement will be sent to the governing bodies of the four agencies for fine-tuning. However, to prod those agencies into signing the agreement, an Oct. 12 deadline is contained in the bills.

Once one of the most popular recreation spots in California, the Salton Sea has suffered a sharp decline because of its increasing odors and rising salinity.

At one point, the state Department of Health posted signs warning people not to eat fish caught in the sea; tourist communities that once lined it are now mini-ghost towns.

Since the sea survives on agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, partners to a sale of water from Imperial Valley to San Diego are required by state and federal law to correct any environmental damage to the sea, which is a major stopover point for millions of migratory birds and boasts a thriving fish population.

Any large-scale reduction in water use in the Imperial Valley will mean decreased runoff and thus increase the sea's salinity, which has been blamed for occasional bird and fish die-offs.

The legislation set to be discussed today in Sacramento contains a tentative plan for each of the four agencies to provide money for environmental projects at the Salton Sea and elsewhere in the Imperial Valley.

In exchange, each agency would be assured that its costs would be capped, and the Legislature would renew a bill that would loosen environmental regulations involving the sea. The state also would pledge to assist in the Salton Sea projects.

The negotiations over the Salton Sea are based on the assumption that the sea will shrink because of the reduction in runoff. "All the concepts being advanced here foresee a much smaller but much healthier sea," Cushman said.

Still, decisions about how much the sea will be allowed to shrink -- and how to offset the possible air pollution problems when the seabed becomes exposed to the air -- are being delayed. Coachella Valley already has significant air pollution.

"I don't know what restoration of the sea will look like at this point," said Sierra Club lobbyist Jim Metropulos, who has been involved in the negotiations. "I'm just hopeful that we've started the process to get restoration."

An official with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity was less upbeat on the prospect that government officials would follow through on their promises to save the sea. The center, which is suing the federal government for allegedly ignoring the birds and fish at the Salton Sea, has not been invited to join the negotiations.

"The Department of the Interior has been wheeling and dealing on these water transfers and has yet to deliver a Salton Sea plan, which is now three years overdue," said center biologist Daniel Patterson.

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