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An aerial view of the Salton Sea, California's largest inland lake, where drought has exacerbated an area already in decline. Photograph: Aude Guerrucci/Reuters
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US to spend $250m on cleanup at California’s toxic Salton Sea

Move could help restore drying lake, a former resort destination that has deteriorated into an environmental crisis amid drought

The US government said on Monday it will spend up to $250m over four years to help mitigate an environmental health disaster that has been brewing in California’s Salton Sea for nearly two decades.

The inland lake, which is fed by agricultural runoff and wastewater, has slowly been shrinking, exposing a powdery shoreline laced with arsenic, selenium and DDT. Dust from the drying lake has wafted into surrounding communities, exacerbating pollution and consequently respiratory conditions in one of California’s poorest and most environmentally burdened regions.

The future of the Salton Sea, and who is financially responsible for it, has also been a key issue in discussions over how to prevent a crisis in the Colorado River.

As farmers in the region – who grow many of the nation’s winter vegetables as well as alfalfa for animal feed – have reduced their water use amid a severe drought in the region, less runoff water has been flowing into the lake, accelerating its decline. Local authorities agreed to oversee further reductions in water drawn from the beleaguered Colorado River, so long as the federal government put up funds to mitigate the effects of even less water flowing into the Salton Sea.

“It’s kind of a linchpin for the action we need to see on the Colorado River,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. “Finally we are all in agreement that we can’t leave the Salton Sea on the cutting room floor, we can’t take these conservation actions – these extraordinary measures – at the expense of these residents.”

The deal announced on Monday needs approval from the Imperial irrigation district, the local authority overseeing water in the region and the largest user of Colorado River water. The water entity’s board will take it up on Tuesday.

Both the district’s general manager and board member JB Hamby applauded the deal on Monday.

“The collaboration happening at the Salton Sea between water agencies and state, federal, and tribal governments is a blueprint for effective cooperation that the Colorado River Basin sorely needs,” Hamby said in a statement.

The $250m will come out of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which set aside $4bn to stave off the worst effects of drought across the US west.

Oxygen-starved tilapia float in a shallow Salton Sea bay. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Most of the money is contingent on the Imperial irrigation district and Coachella Valley water district making good on their commitments to reduce their own use of river water. Both submitted proposals to cut back their usage for payment as part of a new federal program.

The $250m will largely go to bolster and speed up existing state projects designed to lower the negative environmental impact of the drying lake bed. The state has committed nearly $583m to projects at the sea, including dust suppression and habitat restoration. One project under way aims to create wetlands and ponds that will limit dust from blowing into the air while creating safe spaces for fish and birds, according to the state.

Local environmental groups have long been pushing for more funds and urgency in addressing the the Salton sea crisis.

Near the sea, hospitalization rates for children with asthma are double the state average, and one in five kids have the condition. In Calipatria, Brawley, Westmorland and other towns around the lake, adult asthma rates are among the highest in the state. Many of the farm workers and outdoor laborers in the region are exposed not only to Salton Sea dust, but also particle pollution from pesticides and trucks.

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The sea was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal and filled up an ancient basin in the desert. For a period, it became a resort destination, attracting celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, as well as president Dwight Eisenhower used to golf nearby.

But by the 1990s, the sea began shrinking. Tens of thousands of migratory birds around the lake have died of either starvation or poisoning over the past few decades. The salty, fertilizer and pesticide filled sea regularly emits a noxious stench on hot, arid days.

California senators and representatives lauded the new infusion of funding to address the issue. “This announcement marks the most meaningful federal investment at the Salton Sea in history, allowing us to more effectively address the public health and environmental disasters at the Salton Sea,” said Senator Alex Padilla.

“This investment is welcome news for our communities and an acknowledgment of the crucial role the federal government should and must take to clean up the sea,” said Representative Raul Ruiz, a doctor who had pushed for funds to address the environmental health crisis in the region.

The move marks “the most meaningful federal investment” in the Salton Sea’s history. Photograph: Aude Guerrucci/Reuters

The deal comes as the US Department of the Interior and the seven states that rely on the river – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – scramble to prevent the worst impacts of the ongoing drought and historic overuse of the river. Lakes Powell and Mead, the key reservoirs that store river water and provide hydropower across the west, are only about a quarter full.

After months of failed negotiations over a deal to drastically cut water use, the federal government in October said it would pay farmers and cities to cut back through activities like leaving fields unplanted or lining canals to prevent water from seeping into the ground. Proposals were due earlier this month. Meanwhile, the interior department has taken steps to unilaterally revise guidelines that govern when water shortages are declared, a move that could force states to further cut back.

The Salton Sea, meanwhile, became its own political flashpoint in October when Arizona senator Mark Kelly, then up for re-election, urged the federal government to withhold any environmental cleanup money unless California agreed to give up more water. That prompted criticism he was using communities who already suffer from poor air quality as a bargaining chip.

The agreement marks a good step forward but key details still need to be fleshed out, said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California. He worries that $250m is not enough to mitigate all of the damage already done at the sea.

“This is a great step but I think we need a lot more,” he said. “We need to continue discussing water sustainability in the region.”

Broadly, he wants to see a more equitable distribution of the region’s water supplies and hopes the Salton Sea gets a guaranteed minimum amount of water even as overall use declines.



Maanvi Singh at The Guardian

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