Twenty Years On, Historic Water Deal Still Fails to Deliver for Salton Sea

While progress under the QSA has been slow, partnership of leading conservation and community orgs hails recent momentum.


October 5, 2023

(Salton Sea, Calif.)—California marks the 20th anniversary of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) on October 10. The QSA is a historic agreement between the State of California, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the San Diego County Water Authority. The QSA quantified the Colorado River water rights of some of California’s agricultural users and set the terms for transfers of  up to 200,000 acre feet a year from IID to San Diego, 105,000 acre feet to MWD and an additional 103,000 to CVWD. While the QSA guaranteed a reliable water supply to much of Southern California and lessened the state’s dependency on the overburdened Colorado River, agricultural runoff to the Salton Sea dropped sharply as Imperial Valley farmers adopted sustainable irrigation systems.

“The clear upside of the QSA has been water supply reliability for more than 12 million people in urban southern California, even in the face of multi-year droughts in both the Sierras and in the Colorado River basin,” said Michael Cohen, senior associate at the Pacific Institute. “But the clear downside has been that this water supply reliability has come at the expense of the Salton Sea - now 50 square miles smaller than when the QSA was signed - and the people who live near the Sea.”

In the two decades since the agreement’s passage, provisions promising aid to halt the decline of the Salton Sea have alternately progressed only in fits and starts or stalled completely as the Sea itself steadily shrank. Winds blowing over exposed lakebed carry clouds of noxious dust blowing into nearby communities, which now suffer some of the highest rates of respiratory ailments in California. The decline also threatens the Sea’s status as a globally important oasis for more than 400 bird species that depend on it as year-round habitat or as a crucial migratory stopover in an arid landscape. 

“Public health is intrinsically linked to the vitality of our natural environments,” said Krystal Otworth, policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability. “As the Sea recedes, so does the health of surrounding communities. Salton Sea residents cannot wait any longer and demand action today that prioritizes public health and community input including multi-benefit infrastructure that prioritizes community's quality of life.” 

“The masses of migrating shorebirds that we’re seeing this season at the Salton Sea show that it’s far from dead,” said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California. “That should underscore how important this body of water is to wildlife and drive home the need to protect and restore habitat there. We’re pleased that the pace of projects appears to be increasing, but with a warming climate and the health of local residents and the long-term survival of migrating birds in peril, that new momentum can’t slack off.”

The pace of remediation work has quickened somewhat in recent years, with a promise of $250 million in federal funds and construction nearing completion on the 4,100-acre Species Conservation Habitat project and others. However, the Salton Sea Partnership, a group including Alianza of Coachella Valley, Audubon California, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Pacific Institute and Sierra Club California, notes that the QSA has yet to fulfill its promises to the Salton Sea.

"Sierra Club California looks forward to seeing meaningful progress of the SSMP to address the ongoing public health and environmental crisis at the Salton Sea,” said Erin Wooley, senior policy strategist for Sierra Club California. “As the situation on the Colorado River develops, we must ensure that decisions around water allocations include a sustainable future for the Salton Sea and nearby residents." 

"We are grateful for any progress when it comes to a reliable water supply in Southern California,” said Silvia Paz, executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley. “However, the communities surrounding the Salton Sea are the communities most burdened with its decline. The state's commitment to equity, environmental justice, and economic opportunity will be measured by progress at the Salton Sea.” 


Press contact: Jason Howe, 415-595-9245, jason.howe@audubon.org

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