In summary

Progress on mitigating the crisis at the Salton Sea has been dismal, even though millions are available to suppress toxic dust and restore habitat.

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By Brandon Dawson, Special to CalMatters

Brandon Dawson is a policy advocate at the California Sierra Club,

The Salton Sea presents one of California’s most pressing ecological and environmental justice crises. The shrinking sea threatens habitat for millions of fish and birds, and as the sea’s shoreline recedes, a pollutant-laced dust spills into nearby communities and threatens the health of 650,000 people living nearby.

For years, our former leaders sat by as the crisis worsened. Responding to the lack of progress in 2017, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the California Natural Resources Agency to adopt a 10-year plan to implement projects to suppress the harmful dust and restore habitat. The agency is required to complete a target amount of suppression and restoration acreage each year and update the water board on progress annually. 

But in the three years since the water board’s order, progress has been dismal, even though there is more than $350 million available to implement the plan. The state failed to meet the acreage targets in 2018, 2019 and is on track to fail again in 2020. Meanwhile, Californians living near the Salton Sea continue to suffer. 

It is imperative that the water board compel the Natural Resources Agency to complete projects in an efficient and transparent manner. Californians have a right to know how their government will meet restoration goals and reverse the historical failure to act. 

Salton Sea communities are depending on these projects to protect their community’s health, economy and environment.

As California continues suffering from COVID-19 and unprecedented wildfires triggering dangerous air quality, the state must act to prevent this pandemic from exacerbating the health disparities that already exist in the communities near the Salton Sea. They are being devastated by the respiratory complications of COVID-19 – suffering higher cases and more hospitalizations – in part because of the harmful air quality they have lived with for decades.

This is a matter of public health and safety. When then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the Salton Sea in 2018, he noted that it was “at its tipping point.” Fish in the sea have been dying for years, and communities nearby have suffered chronic illnesses. It’s past time for the Natural Resources Agency to make the safety of the Salton Sea and its surrounding communities a priority. 

Fortunately, recent actions by the Newsom administration will help. In January, the Natural Resources Agency completed the first dust suppression project. And in June, Newsom signed a state budget that included $47.3 million for two key mitigation and restoration projects. The state authorized 10 new staff positions that will work on implementation of the 10-year plan. These additional resources are necessary for communities facing the health crisis created by the sea’s conditions. 

Still, the weight of the crisis demands more urgency. Heightened cases of COVID-19, devastating fires, increased temperatures and dust storms resulting from climate change, severe air pollution from the Salton Sea’s dust, and an economic downturn have increased health care costs and reduced property values in the region. Communities near the Salton Sea are fighting a battle on many fronts and need reprieve. Restoring the Salton Sea is an investment in the wellbeing and resilience of an entire region.

The crisis at the Salton Sea is the result of delay and inaction. While our leaders have acknowledged this, they must adopt a greater sense of urgency and prioritize the Salton Sea crisis. The health of and prosperity of an entire region depends on it.

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