A local effort to shore up the Salton Sea has been in the works for some time, but with a Riverside County supervisor took the opportunity to make a push for taking control of the body of water away from the state.
Riverside County Fifth District Supervisor Marion Ashley, who has also served on the Salton Sea Authority for the last 10 years and is the agency’s current chairman, said this week's smelly experience serves as a “pungent reminder'' of why the Authority -- a joint powers agency made up of officials from Riverside and Imperial counties -- should be freed to take charge of a tentative "restoration action plan'' conceived more than six years ago.
“Something’s got to be done. The Sea will be dead in a few years,” Ashley said. “We’re very frustrated. We want to fix it.”
If action is not taken, the supervisor argues California will experience an “ecological disaster.”
According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors pollution levels in the region, this week’s rotten-egg odor was the product of decaying organic matter in the Salton Sea, including dead plants and sea life, resulting in elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide in the water.
Thunderstorms over the low desert moved west and carried the scent, Ashley explained.
“It’s like a burp,” he said. “The fumes rise up and are carried in the clouds.
“They get that odor in the Coachella Valley every year – every year!” the supervisor continued.
Ashley warned that the sulfur fumes were "nothing'' compared to what might happen.
"As the sea recedes, plagues of powdery air-borne dust are destined to
descend upon the residents of Southern California, choking people, pets and
plant life,'' Ashley said. "While the solutions will require capital investment and ongoing expense, doing nothing is the most costly of all options.''
The Salton Sea Authority adopted the Salton Sea Revitalization and Restoration plan in 2006, which calls for restoring the Sea as a wildlife refuge and preserving its Native American heritage.
The plan also calls for reestablishing the area as a tourist destination and recreational playground that would theoretically spur local economic development.
The plan details how it would treat water to lessen or greatly reduce the Sea's eutrophication problem, which includes building a circulation channel and water treatment facilities. (To view the plan, click here.)
To bring the plan to fruition, however, Ashley said a $2 million feasibility study needs to be done first, and he’s calling on the state to fund it.
Once the study is complete, the supervisor said the plan would be executed using a combination of public and private dollars.
“We can do it a lot cheaper than the state’s $9 billion estimate to restore the Sea,” he said.
"Public health and safety risks continue to grow as the receding Salton Sea shoreline imperils the environmental and economic health of the region," the supervisor continued.
The 365-square-mile Salton Sea -- the largest part of which lies in Imperial County, with the north portion stretching to within a few miles of Thermal -- has been plagued with increasing salinity over the last 40 years, to the point that some of the sea's deeper places are saltier than the ocean.
Moreover, according to studies, nutrient compounds from agricultural runoff have created the "eutrophic" condition, where high levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia kill fish and produce gagging odors.
Water reclamation plans by local agencies and Mexico, as well as a reduction of Colorado River supplies, will shrink the sea in the coming years, according to the Salton Sea Authority.
Ashley said the state has been aware of the sea's precarious condition for decades and came up with the $9 billion strategy to preserve the century-old body of water, where some 400 bird species congregate annually during their winter and spring flights. However, the Legislature has failed to commit any funds.
The supervisor noted that the most recent budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown abolished the Salton Sea Restoration Council, which existed in name only but had been established to identify a process by which to begin restoration.
Ashley complained about the governor vetoing a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Manuel Perez (D-Indio) that would have allocated the $2 million for the feasibility study.
The supervisor said the state didn't even have to draw down its own accounts for that; it could have used funds already provided by local agencies.