It’s no secret that the Salton Sea is in serious trouble. Years of reduced inflows, along with drought and a warming climate, have caused the Sea to shrink, exposing dry lakebed that sends clouds of irritating dust towards surrounding communities, causing increased rates of respiratory diseases. Rising salinity levels have killed off most of the lake’s fish, an important food source for many species of migratory birds.
What’s not as well known is that one of the main landowners at the Sea has not been fully invested in efforts to restore California’s largest lake. The U.S. federal government owns more than 40 percent of land in and around the Sea. While the 1992 federal Reclamation Projects Authorization and Adjustment Act authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to research methods to control salinity, protect habitat, enhance fisheries, and protect recreational opportunities – it severely also limited Reclamation’s ability to participate in restoration efforts run by California’s Salton Sea Management Program.
But a bill introduced last week by Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (CA-36) would significantly expand the ability of the Bureau of Reclamation to partner with the region’s other major landowners -- state, local, and Tribal governments -- to address the public health and environmental crisis at the Salton Sea. H.R. 3877, the Salton Sea Projects Improvements Act, would modernize the Salton Sea Research Program to allow Reclamation to be the federal partner on projects to improve air and water quality, restore fish and wildlife habitat, and improve public health at the Salton Sea. The bill also increases the amount Reclamation is able to spend at the Salton Sea from $10 million to $250 million.
Ruiz’ legislation represents an important opportunity to more effectively use federal resources to target an neglected communities in a region on the brink of ecological collapse, in the process bringing jobs to a region reeling from COVID-19 and double-digit unemployment. As the area settles into another summer of record-breaking heat, the thermometer is a reminder that the need to act is urgent.