Federal lawmakers don’t put money where the Salton Sea is

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in an Oct. 11 letter to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chaired by her fellow California Democrat, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, requested $1.3 billion for California water projects from Sacramento down to Calexico.

Conspicuously missing from the list, however, is any request for money toward Salton Sea restoration.

The sea, California’s largest lake, is slowly dying as its salinity increases. Its shrinking shores are expected to be increasingly exposed by 2018, when a water transfer deal to San Diego County enters full implementation and the sea’s water supply via agricultural runoff is reduced considerably.  Scientists tell us that already challenged fish and bird habitats will be negatively impacted, and exposed lake beds could cause an air quality crisis across the region when carried by the winds.

Feinstein’s letter notes her latest requests are in addition to those she made in a May 2010 letter to the committee. That much longer list of water projects also doesn’t include a request for Salton Sea funds.

Sacramento has clearly pushed the looming crisis at the Salton Sea behind their budgetary struggles, and environmentally behind the need for fixes in the river deltas of Sacramento.

But a California Senator putting the sea behind more than 50 other water-related projects statewide? Really?

We sent an email to Feinstein’s spokespeople to ask about it and haven’t heard back so far.

The sea’s other federal lawmakers haven’t been particularly successful in garnering federal funds toward a fix. Boxer’s website touts that she secured $4.5 million for the sea in 2002, and $30 million for sea restoration projects in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. But the latter money hasn’t been used, awaiting $10 million in either state or local matching funds.

“As soon as we get a plan and the matching funds, I will do everything I can to move this critical restoration project forward,” Boxer told The Desert Sun in late September.

In the House, Palm Springs Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, calling on them to “bring together your agencies and work with our local and state leaders” on Salton Sea solutions. She’s also called for a new Congressional hearing about the sea, due to dissatisfaction with the state’s lack of progress.

The state’s preferred alternative for sea mitigation and restoration in 2007 was estimated to cost nearly $9 billion.

View Feinstein’s requests for water project funding from October and May 2010 via the links below:

October 2012 Feinstein letter seeking 1.3 billion for CA water projects

Feinstein requested water project money May 2010

Scientists: Salton Sea volcanoes much younger than previously thought

The Salton Buttes, a line of four small volcanoes on the Salton Sea’s southeastern shore, are not only still considered active by scientists, new research indicates they last erupted thousands of years more recently than previously thought.

Many scientists previously thought the buttes last erupted between 6,500 and 10,000 years ago. But a new study detailed online Oct. 15 in the journal Geology indicates they last erupted between 940 and 0 B.C., OurAmazingPlanet.com reports.

In a June 2011 Desert Sun story, Bruce Perry, an Earth sciences lecturer at California State University-Long Beach, explained that what causes the volcanoes is the same thing that contributes to the Salton Sea’s mud pots and geothermal activity that’s being harnessed for renewable energy.

“The area of the Salton Sea is being pulled apart due to major tectonic forces beneath it,” Perry said. “As it is pulled apart, the crust gets thinner, and that allows magma — molten elements from deep underground — to work their way to the surface.”

To see what happens to a rift valley over millions of years, look to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, a long finger of land that broke away from the Mexican mainland along a rift valley, Patrick Muffler, a USGS geologist from Palo Alto who’s spent more than four decades focused on geothermal energy, and whose studies include the Salton Buttes, said last year.

A 1989 bulletin by U.S. Geological Survey found that “the compositions of lavas of past eruptions and the association of vents with groundwater and the Salton Sea suggest that pyroclastic flows and surges and explosive eruptions could occur in the future,” a 1989 bulletin by U.S. Geological Survey on potential future volcano hazards in California found.

“Such events commonly are destructive out to distances of at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) from an active vent.”

Pyroclastic flows are a mixture of mineral fragments and hot gases that move almost like a flash-flood of water. According to USGS, they reach speeds of over 60 mph, with gases reaching over 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Pyroclastic flows are responsible for thousands of deaths in history’s worst volcanic disasters, including at Herculaneum and Pompeii in ancient Roman times and at St. Pierre in Martinique in 1902, where 30,000 people died in a pyroclastic flow after Mount Pelée erupted.

USGS in February opened the California Volcano Observatory to monitor the state’s volcanoes and their activity. Based on the new research, the Salton Buttes are among the state’s newest volcanoes.

Coming Sunday: Salton Sea at the tipping point

The Sept. 10 “Big Stink,” when a strong southerly wind took foul Salton Sea odors throughout Southern California, was a warning sign of things to come, scientists and policy-makers say. And it highlighted the decades of failed attempts by local, state and federal politicians, as well as area residents, to stem off a crisis that’s headed for the shrinking sea.

By 2018, the Salton Sea’s water supply will drop dramatically as part of a water transfer from Imperial Valley farmers to urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. More than 100 square miles of exposed, dusty lake bed will then be carried wherever the desert winds take it. And ever-rising salinity levels at any time could kill off the last remaining species of game fish in the sea, tilapia. When that happens, the birds who rely upon the sea will have no adequate food source. And with most of California’s wetlands long ago lost to development, where they will go and how they will survive is in question for several species.

I and my iSun colleagues Marcel Honoré, Erica Felci and Rebecca Walsh this weekend will take an in-depth look at the Salton Sea, past failures to find a fix and what went wrong, and where things go from here. Look for it in Sunday’s print edition of The Desert Sun or here on mydesert.com .

Meanwhile, check out some of our past Salton Sea coverage at www.mydesert.com/saltonsea.

Today’s “Big Stink” could be harbinger of smelly things to come

A surprisingly large portion of Southern California got an unpleasant encounter with “The Big Stink” on Monday, a rotten-egg-like smell emanating from the Salton Sea following a strong, windy storm Sunday night.

Those not used to the Sea’s occasional foul smells were calling 911 in Los Angeles County to report it, according to media reports, and it was smelled as far away as Simi Valley in Ventura County.

Get used to it, said Desert Hot Springs City Manager Rick Daniels, the former executive director of the Salton Sea Authority. Such waves of stench may become far more common region-wide, he said.

“This is just the beginning,” he said.

“If the State does not implement the Salton Sea Restoration Plan as required by the Agreement for the Use of the Colorado River and the Sea dies, this odor will be an everyday occurrence somewhere in SoCal depending upon which way the wind blows.”

Timothy Krantz, a professor in the University of Redlands’ Environmental Studies Program who studies the troubled lake, said the smell comes not from dead fish necessarily, but from accumulated sulphur dioxide stored up in the sea’s depths as algae blooms and then decays.

“The Sea accumulates sulphur dioxide at depth during the summer months,” he said. “Then, when we get a wind event, such as yesterday’s southeasterly ‘Chubasco’ blowing up from the Gulf of California, it pushes the surface waters off, causing upwelling of the bottom sulphurous water layers, hence the rotten egg smell.  One more reason why we need to ‘fix’ the Sea.”

Compounding the event, Krantz added, was that the sulphur dioxide was able to build up over time, and the evaporating sea’s declining depths — at its peak it was up to 51 feet deep but now is only around 43 feet deep — make it easier for that deeper water layer holding back the rotten-egg smell to come to the surface.

“Shades of things to come?” he said.  “At least it’s not laden with PM10 or micro-particulates.  That would be worse.  But for now, its just smelly.”

New faults discovered after 2010 Baja quake — a deeper look at the science

As reported in The Desert Sun and on mydesert.com on Sunday, scientific research following the El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake in Baja California on Easter Day, April 4, 2010,  revealed the magnitude 7.2 quake caused surface movement on faults throughout Southern California, and led to the discovery of several previously unknown faults near the Salton Sea.

To see U.S. Geological Survey’s report, prepared in conjunction with California Geological Survey and several universities, click the link below  (PDF, requires Adobe Acrobat Reader):