Excluded from a Southwestern drought pact, the Imperial Irrigation District won a small victory Tuesday when federal legislators included protections for the Salton Sea that were left out of previous drafts of the agreement.
“Congress stood with the Salton Sea by introducing legislation today, which maintains these critical environmental protections,” IID Board President Erik Ortega said in reference to the Drought Contingency Plan. “As this greatly improved DCP legislation now moves forward in Congress, we hope our colleagues will join with us to address the public health and environmental crisis at the Salton Sea.”
Over the last few weeks, federal legislators worked with state and local representatives to introduce a bill that authorizes the Drought Contingency Plan, a multi-state agreement that ensures states from the Lower Colorado River Basin will agree to store set volumes of water in Lake Mead if the lake reaches certain levels.
According to IID officials, these attempts largely skirted federal environmental law, including duties “to evaluate, avoid and mitigate the impacts of the DCP on the Salton Sea.” However, the House Natural Resources Committee and Senate Energy Committee reintroduced the bill Tuesday and included Salton Sea protections sought by IID, Ortega said.
According to Robert Schettler of IID, the provisions are essentially “a safety clause for the sea.”
“At minimum, the sea needs to be held harmless from the DCP,” he said.
Although the Salton Sea continues to be federally protected under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan, IID’s concerns about what it calls a mounting public health crisis at the Salton Sea remain.
“The declining Salton Sea presents a severe public health and environmental crisis,” Schettler said. “This is really about protecting the backyard here… Our area in the Imperial Valley is one of the poorest in the state. You know, the lowest average median income and the highest asthma rate, and we’re trying to protect those people.”
Nearly 650,000 people are affected by poor air quality in the area, according to a report from the Pacific Institute.
Asthma risks increase for underprivileged communities as fine dust leaches into the air from the Salton Sea’s receding shoreline, according to Pacific Institute. More than 100 tons of dust per day could be released into the air by 2045 if the shorelines are allowed to recede at the current rate, the institute reported.
The desert water agency, the Colorado River’s largest single user, refused to sign the DCP as it sought a “firm commitment” of over $400 million in state and federal funds to resolve these issues. And, last month, the desert water agency was excluded from the pact by the Colorado River Board of California.
Restoration programs for the Salton Sea were linchpin issues for IID back in December when the organization tentatively agreed to sign the DCP, Schettler said.
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