Federal, state and local agencies reach agreement to address Salton Sea crisis

The $250 million commitment will support public health and habitat while conserving Colorado River water.

At a special meeting of California’s Imperial Irrigation District this week, the influential water agency voted 3-2 to sign an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the California Natural Resources Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District regarding the management of the Salton Sea. The deal, which would provide $250 million for restoration, is by far the largest injection of federal funds to date for the ailing sea.

The federal funds will go toward environmentally beneficial projects, including air quality improvements, public health programs and ecosystem restoration projects. In addition, the agencies agreed to provide the land necessary to implement these projects, while the California Natural Resources Agency has promised to expedite the permitting process.


The deal is the result of months of negotiations, following the Interior Department’s October call asking Western states to reduce their use of Colorado River water. The Colorado River Board of California responded by pledging to conserve 1.6 million acre-feet of water by 2026. The Imperial Irrigation District agreed to take the biggest cut —1 million acre-feet — but only if Interior provided funding for Salton Sea aid.

The Salton Sea — California's largest and most polluted lake — is in crisis. For decades, the sea was fed by runoff irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River for use in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. But today a much smaller proportion of those flows reach the sea, due to climate change, water-conservation measures and water-transfer agreements regarding the Colorado River. The sea has rapidly dried up, and now toxic dust blows off the dry lakebed. A 2014 report from the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank, estimated that failing to address the crisis could cost the area $70 billion in health-care impacts, environmental damage and economic loss over the next three decades.

The Imperial Irrigation District — the single largest user of Colorado River water — provides water for around 474,000 acres of Imperial Valley farmland. Historically, its agricultural diversions helped feed the Salton Sea. That changed in 2003, when the district agreed to send agricultural water to the county of San Diego instead. That deal also encouraged water-conservation measures, including lining irrigation canals, laser-leveling and drip irrigation.

The Salton Sea’s shoreline is seen from the air last year in Thermal, California. As the lake continues to evaporate, particularly since the Imperial Irrigation District sold water which helped sustain the lake level to coastal cities in 2003, its increasing salinity has made it unsustainable for the fish and great masses of white pelicans and other migratory birds that fed on them. As more lake bottom becomes exposed, fine particles of toxic dust are becoming a health hazard to local communities. The Salton Sea, once more popular than Yosemite Valley for its sport fishing and water activities, is the latest in a long cycle of major lakes forming in the Salton Basin through Colorado River floods then disappearing through evaporation through the millennia.
David McNew/Getty Images

With less agricultural runoff, however, the Salton Sea has rapidly evaporated in recent years, exposing a dry lakebed encrusted with a long list of contaminants — everything from arsenic to DDT. As the water has evaporated, the concentration of salts in the sea has become so high that fish can no longer survive.

The communities surrounding the sea, which are primarily Latino and low-income, have paid a heavy price for the sea’s desiccation. They suffer disproportionately from health effects, including asthma and other respiratory conditions, allergies and nosebleeds. “A lot of people get money and come to the community and ask what we want, but at the end nothing happens,” Sandra Ramirez, who lives on the sea’s north coast, told High Country News. “People keep saying they want us to help have better quality air, a better environment, and not so many contaminants, but we as a community want something to happen now, urgently.”

“A lot of people get money and come to the community and ask what we want, but at the end nothing happens.”

The Nov. 29 multi-agency commitment is supposed to address these concerns, as well as to meet the irrigation district's condition for its water cutbacks. The agreement involves “expanding and expediting” projects that will flood portions of the lakebed in order to “protect human health by limiting dust emissions” while also providing aquatic habitat. The federal government's $250 million commitment includes funding for project implementation and support with staffing and scientific research.

Additionally, the California Natural Resources Agency agreed to accelerate permitting, and all the agencies involved said they would provide “expedited land access” for the projects. This is important because unlike most lakes, which are under the jurisdiction of their state, the Salton Sea’s lakebed is a complex checkerboard of ownership. In a statement, Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute emphasized that land access had been “a huge obstacle for years.”

But not everyone is so optimistic. The comment period for the irrigation district’s meeting included blowback from both community organizations and farmers. Many of the critics had concerns about transparency, largely stemming from the fact that the public had less than 24 hours before the meeting to review the agreement.

Others felt that the money would be better spent directly on local communities. José Flores, a research and advocacy specialist at the organization Comité Civico del Valle, summed up his organization’s position: “(That) $250 million should be given to Imperial County for the historic disregard and lack of investment in our community.”

An aerial view from a drone shows abandoned nests on now-landlocked Mullet Island near Calipatria, California, last year. Until a few years ago, the nests were one of the largest breeding colonies of Double-crested Cormorants in western North America. Gone, too, is the world’s largest concentration of eared grebes as well as tens of thousands of American White Pelicans, about 30% of the North American breeding population.
David McNew/Getty Images

Note: This story has been updated to correct the date the Pacific Institute report came out. It was 2014, not 2021. It was also updated to note that the agricultural runoff entitlement from the Colorado River goes to the county of San Diego, not the city, and that some agricultural runoff still reaches the Salton Sea.

Caroline Tracey is the Climate Justice Fellow at
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