Annual Report on the Salton Sea Management Program

[Download the complete 76 page report in PDF format here]


Presentation to the State Water Resources Control Board, April 17, 2021

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – en español

The Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) made progress in 2020 toward reducing exposed lakebed and creating habitat at the Salton Sea (Sea). Even amid challenges posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, delivering projects that improve conditions for residents as well as wildlife at the Sea remains a key priority for the Newsom Administration. The SSMP worked closely with local, State, Tribal and federal partners to advance important work in 2020 and is poised to build on that momentum in 2021.

The SSMP Team remains focused on the following goals:

  • Drive implementation of the SSMP’s Phase I: 10-Year Plan, which aims to improve conditions around the Sea by constructing 30,000 acres of projects to suppress dust from exposed lakebed and create habitat for fish and birds;
  • Establish a long-term pathway for the Salton Sea beyond the Phase I: 10-Year Plan;
  • Continue to build the SSMP Team to enable the State to deliver projects; and
  • Strengthen partnerships with local leaders and communities to deliver projects and institutionalize inclusive community engagement within and across SSMP projects.

Since the last annual report submitted by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) to the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) in March 2020, the SSMP Team has strengthened its organizational structure, gathered input from community members, local leaders and interested groups, and worked with partners to plan and implement projects. This report provides updates on completed SSMP projects, the status of planning activities, ongoing partnerships and community engagement activities.

Project Delivery

The SSMP team marked progress by beginning construction on the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) project, the State’s first large-scale project to reduce exposed lakebed and create environmental habitat. Following initial onsite work in late fall, the State’s design-build contractors, Kiewit Infrastructure West Co., began construction in January 2021 on the $206.5 million project located at the southern end of the Sea on both sides of the New River.

The SCH project will create a network of ponds and wetlands to provide important fish and bird habitat and suppress dust emissions to improve regional air quality as the Salton Sea recedes. The project will cover approximately 4,110 acres, an increase over the previously estimated 3,770 acres due to an updated design. Construction is expected to continue through the end of 2023.

The State team obtained site access to the SCH area in May 2019 and subsequently executed a water use agreement with Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to enable the project. The SCH is anticipated to create as many as 3,000 jobs over the course of construction.

In addition to launching the SCH, the SSMP Team completed approximately 755 acres of temporary dust suppression projects at the southern end of the Salton Sea in 2020 as an interim proactive measure to treat areas of exposed lakebed due to dropping Sea levels. Work completed included the 112-acre Bruchard Road

Dust Suppression Project (January 2020), the 306-acre New River East Project (November 2020) and the 280-acre New River West Project (December 2020). The three temporary surface roughening projects were located within the footprint of the SCH project and will be inundated with water upon completion of the SCH project.

The projects used surface roughening, an erosion control practice, to create furrows that will slow wind down as it sweeps over exposed lakebed and physically trap soil particles entering the roughened area from upwind sources.

The SSMP Team shared its near-term plans for interim projects to help control dust with the release of the Dust Suppression Action Plan (DSAP) in July 2020. The DSAP is a guidance document that outlines 9,800 acres of project planning areas on exposed lakebed around the Sea, identifies potential dust suppression concepts, and describes the steps needed to transition from concept to on-the-ground implementation over the next few years. The approximately 755 acres of projects completed in 2020 are part of this plan.

Since the State is not a significant landowner at the Sea, collaboration with various land-owning entities is critical to the SSMP Team’s ability to implement projects. Land-access agreements and permits must be secured prior to conducting detailed soil testing or beginning construction work. Thus, the SSMP is prioritizing work to secure land access in areas with the highest emissivity potential to construct additional projects in strategic locations along the perimeter of the Sea. These will help control dust from exposed lakebed areas and limit Sea-related impacts on air quality for communities such as Salton City, Bombay Beach and North Shore.

The SSMP Team spent considerable time in 2020 working with various land-owning entities towards obtaining permits and agreements needed to facilitate delivery of additional dust suppression projects in 2021 and 2022. For 2021, dust suppression projects and monitoring are being planned at six sites for which land access is expected shortly: Clubhouse, Tule Wash, San Felipe Fan, Bombay Beach and Bombay Beach West and North Shore.

Planning

The SSMP Team is partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete an Environmental Assessment (EA) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by fall 2021. The draft project description was released for public comment in August 2020, and three online public meetings were held during September 2020 to receive feedback. Upon completion, this NEPA process will enable federal permitting for the full 30,000 acres of projects identified in the Phase I: 10-Year Plan document.

While the SSMP Team is executing the Phase I: 10-Year Plan, it is simultaneously developing a path forward for long-term restoration and management of the Sea beyond the first decade. This long-range plan is required to be completed by CNRA and submitted to the State Water Board. A key input for the long-range plan is a feasibility analysis of water importation concepts for the Sea. The SSMP Team is currently finalizing a contract to convene an independent review panel to conduct a feasibility analysis beginning in spring 2021.

The results of the independent feasibility analysis will inform restoration options for the long-range plan. Public engagement to launch development of the long-range plan will begin—concurrently with the independent review of water importation proposals—in the spring of 2021, and the plan will be completed by the end of 2022, as required by State Water Board Order WR-0134. The plan will establish a strategy for long-term restoration, and options evaluated to inform this plan will include project build-out based on projected future water inflows within the Salton Sea watershed as well as water importation for a whole-Sea alternative, if importation is found to be feasible..

Partnerships

The SSMP Team recognizes the crucial role of partnerships in meeting its restoration goals, through collecting data, facilitating project implementation, and helping obtain funding sources. Close collaboration with local governments, including Imperial County, Riverside County, Imperial Irrigation District, Imperial County Air Pollution Control District, and the Salton Sea Authority has proven essential to recent progress implementing projects. Likewise, close coordination and cooperation with State and federal agencies, including the Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality Control Board, State Water Resources Control Board, California Air Resources Board, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has enabled progress to date.

The SSMP Team continues to work with local partners, including Riverside County and the Salton Sea Authority, to implement the approximately 160-acre North Lake Demonstration Project, which eventually could be integrated into a larger North Lake concept. The concept envisions construction of a 4,030-acre horseshoe-shaped lake at the north end of the Sea to control dust and create habitat for fish and birds. The 2020-2021 State budget allocated $19.25 million in Proposition 68 funding for the North Lake Demonstration Project.

The SSMP Team is also meeting with local stakeholders and partners to collaborate on a broad range of projects and planning activities. Examples of collaborative efforts include:

  • Collaboration with Imperial County and Imperial County Air Pollution Control District to develop the Desert Shores Channel Restoration Project. The project would create habitat and suppress dust by refilling currently dewatered channels with water at a salinity level that provides habitat for fish and supports piscivorous birds.
  • The SSMP Team has been working with Audubon California to support a 750-acre wetland at Bombay Beach that would suppress dust while also creating managed wetland habitat on the east side of the Sea.
  • The SSMP Team engaged with air quality agencies to develop the Dust Suppression Action Plan. The team worked with IID and the regional air districts (Imperial County Air Pollution Control District and South Coast Air Quality Management District) to learn from their data collection, planning and field research on dust suppression around the Sea. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) was also an active participant in helping the SSMP Team identify and review dust control strategies and monitoring requirements. These partnerships have guided the team’s planning for dust suppression projects.

The SSMP Team continues to develop a broader strategy for federal funding and partnership opportunities to assist with implementation of the SSMP. The team entered into a funding agreement with USBR to support implementation of dust suppression projects. The team is also working with partners to pursue available federal funding sources, including with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Community Engagement and Transparency

In 2020, the SSMP Team continued to place a strong focus on community engagement. The Engagement Committee, consisting of representatives from stakeholder groups, local leaders, governmental agencies, and Tribal governments, held three meetings in 2020 and helped shape the State’s public workshops, refined a  draft Community Engagement Plan and worked on a draft committee charter. These activities will gain further momentum in 2021 as the SSMP Team adds staff at the Sea dedicated to community engagement and communication.

The SSMP Team hosted six public workshops, for both the DSAP and Phase I: 10-Year Plan Project Description, to share information and gather feedback. The SSMP Team also accepted written comments during a 30-day period for each and posted all comments received, both written and verbal, online. The SSMP Team continues to use the comprehensive website, www.saltonsea.ca.gov, to provide information on SSMP projects and opportunities to offer input. The State also continues to share news and updates via the e-newsletter that debuted in November 2019. The Salton Sea Management Program Update provides information on project delivery, upcoming meetings, and other relevant information, offers opportunities for feedback, and is distributed through the California Natural Resources Agency Salton Sea Listserv.

The SSMP Team also is working to increase its physical presence at the Sea by establishing a local Salton Sea Program Office at the Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area in Niland, Imperial County.

Going Forward

With expanded staffing for the SSMP during 2020, and the further planned addition of 10 new staff in 2021, the program is building stronger institutional capacity to meet the growing demands of completing the wide range of projects now on the drawing board. The SSMP Team has learned from the experience of completing approximately 755 acres of dust suppression projects in 2020, and from the initiation of the SCH project. This experience will help refine future work plans and implementation schedules in the coming years.

The team looks forward to working with local, Tribal, State and federal partners to rapidly expand the acreage of completed projects in the year ahead. Although the acreage of completed projects is presently below annual targets identified in State Water Resources Control Board Order WR 2017-0134, the completion of land access agreements and major projects such as the SCH should help put the team on track to meet the cumulative acreage target by 2023.

Because the State is not a significant landowner at the Salton Sea, catching up with and achieving annual acreage targets is dependent on focused collaboration between the State and major landowners to execute land access agreements in a timely way. The SSMP Team will continue to prioritize implementing projects on lands where the State has secured site control while it also works to develop master land use agreements to enable project delivery.