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Farmers question impact of Salton Sea restoration alternative plan on California agriculture

Two California farmers with deep agricultural roots in southeastern California have their fingers firmly on the pulse of a major state proposal designed to revitalize yet shrink the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, located in Imperial and Riverside counties.

The price tag is too costly, the farmers say. While the long-term restoration plan could bring benefits to the state and its agricultural industry, the issue is clouded with concerns about whether the impact of the plan would encourage or discourage food production near the salty sea.

Crop producer Al Kalin farms as close as one mile to the sea's south shoreline near Westmorland, Calif. Also on the south side is William DuBois of El Centro, Calif., a retired farmer and landowner. Both spent three years providing agricultural input on a 32-member state Salton Sea advisory committee.

Eight alternatives evolved from the committee for consideration by California Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman.

The result is Chrisman's Salton Sea Restoration Preferred Alternative Plan, a plan released in May that is not one of the single alternatives developed by the committee. Instead, the proposed plan consists of ideas molded from the various alternatives.

Chrisman's plan is an $8.9 billion sea makeover to span at least 75 years. A mix of state, federal, and private dollars would potentially fund the plan. California lawmakers would carefully review his final pick.

According to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the preferred alternative includes agricultural, recreational, and economic issues, with the flexibility to address changing conditions at the sea. The aim is to improve air and water quality, habitat, and the sea's overall ecosystem.

“The preferred alternative I've sent to the legislature represents a starting point for Salton Sea restoration that is adaptable, flexible, sustainable, and functions under a wide variety of conditions that may arise over the course of the next 75 years,” Chrisman said.

“The vision we are articulating includes broad agreement on early start habitat activity and a 5-year action plan, providing a sound starting point from which restoration of this important ecosystem can begin.”

Salton Sea facts

Located south of Indigo and north of El Centro, an area called the Salton Sink became the Salton Sea in the early 1900s. According to DWR, the California Development Company in 1901 worked to expand agricultural productivity in the Imperial Valley and dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River.

Heavy silt loads inhibited water flow, so engineers cut into the western bank of the Colorado River to allow more water to reach the valley. Flood waters broke through the engineered canal and most of the river water flowed into the valley. When the breach was closed, the Salton Sea had formed.

Today, the Salton Sea is an agricultural drainage sump; 90 percent of its inflow is agricultural drainage from the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys. The inflow carries nutrients like phosphates and nitrates that encourage life in the sea.

Covering 376 square miles, the waterway stretches 35 miles in length and 15 miles wide, and is 228 feet below sea level. The sea's microclimate speeds up vegetable production, allowing area farmers to get a nudge in getting crops to market first.

Salton Sea water contains 25 percent more salt, 48,000 milligrams per liter, than ocean water's 35,000 milligrams.

Due to California's insatiable thirst for water and water agreements signed in 2003, the size of the Salton Sea will shrink. While 1.3 million acre-feet of water currently flows into the sea, over time the average annual inflow will fall to 717,000 acre-feet when Southern California cities take the farm irrigation water for the thirsting millions north of the Imperial Valley.

The wildlife habitat created around the sea has become a temporary stop for about 400 species of birds flying between Canada, Mexico, and other destinations. Two fish swim in the sea — the state and federally endangered desert pupfish, and tilapia, an introduced species with high saline and low heat tolerances.

Agriculture and sea

“Agriculture has maintained the size of the sea, and that can be good, bad, or indifferent depending on whom you ask,” according to Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the DWR's Colorado River and Salton Sea Office in Sacramento.

Hoffman-Floerke led a team of technical experts from the DWR, California Department of Fish and Game, and consultants to develop and analyze alternatives and conduct public outreach efforts to gather recommendations on maintaining the sea.

By presidential proclamation in 1924 and 1928, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding declared the lands under the Salton Sea to be an agricultural drainage repository in perpetuity.

“From the farmer's perspective, that situation cannot be changed in any way. We were respectful and mindful of that,” Hoffman-Floerke said. “This project does not impact farmers' ability to use the Salton Sea as a drainage repository.”

In the early 1900s, farming was attractive, with a plentiful water source (the Colorado River), so farmers in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys started to put more land in production, Hoffman-Floerke said. Farm drainage flowed into the Salton Sea — it was a sink without a natural outlet. Today, the north, south, and western sides of the sea are home to a variety of crops, including vegetables, citrus, grapes, and others.

Farmers speak out

With Salton Sea advisory meetings held about every two months over three years, Al Kalin and Bill DuBois have been vocal — as Californians and as agriculturalists.

Kalin and his brother grow alfalfa, carrots, processing onions, sugarbeets, wheat, Bermudagrass, Sudangrass, and sugarcane.

As a committee member, Kalin was an advocate to preserve the sea-created microclimate. The sea temperature never falls below 50 degrees, and the warm water creates conditions where the area seldom freezes. The water warms wintertime winds from the northwest.

“This allows farmers at the south end to grow crops when nobody else can,” Kalin said. “That means the first lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, and onions come off earlier than any other place in the U.S. That is an economic advantage for the farmer for a short period because of the warming that occurs.”

Agriculture's position on the microclimate issue was heard loud and clear at the state level, Hoffman-Floerke said.

“We will try to get a handle on exactly how the microclimate is effective around the sea and will work with farmers to ensure the microclimate continues,” she said. “We have committed to do that. Areas (of the preferred plan) with a saline habitat complex and the marine sea would continue to provide that microclimate.”

The sea's level has dropped two feet from its high point in the mid-1990s, Kalin noted. As a result, the salt playa once underwater is now exposed, leaving behind fine salt particles to blow in the air and damage crops and create health problems.

“It looks similar to white powder on a doughnut,” Kalin said. “It is pure sodium chloride. It's extremely fine, in the PM 10 range, and looks like white smoke from something that's on fire.

“The white salt dust has burned leaves on sweet corn grown next to the sea. If the dust is strong enough, it can damage tender crops like leafy lettuces and spinach. If the salt burns the tender leaves, they can't be sold.”

Health problems from the blowing salt can cause throat constriction, burning of the eyes and nose, and breathing difficulties, especially for asthmatics.

The preferred alternative plan would increase the playa area even more, exposing up to 100,000 acres of playa, Hoffman-Floerke said.

“We'll work with the locals on this issue and how best to treat it. We are not dismissing the issue of air quality. We're hoping our toolbox of tools will address to the maximum extent feasible the air quality issues and we're hopeful it won't be an issue,” she said.

“No one has ever tried to manage air quality on 100,000 acres anywhere,” Hoffman-Floerke said. “We will work closely with farmers to make sure we can at least identify what the impacts might be, how we can best avoid them, and if not, how we can mitigate them.”

Kalin said, “At this time, Mr. Chrisman can't tell you who's in charge, who will mitigate those impacts, and who will pay the bill. That is very bothersome. With our agricultural economy here, we don't have the necessary money to pay for the mitigation.”

As part of the plan, farmers have the potential to reclaim lands in the seabed previously used for agricultural production. Land under the sea's south end has good soil, Kalin noted.

Yet to farm a dried seabed, ridding the ground of heavy-laden salt would be a prerequisite. Kalin talked about constructing a dike in the sea and allowing fresh water from the New and Alamo rivers on the sea's south end to wash enough salt out of the ground over several years to allow land reclamation for agriculture.

Potential crops for the area could include salt grass or bermudagrass. Once the soil was solid enough to support heavy equipment, laying tile drainage lines could help regain ground even faster.

Hoffman-Floerke views reclaiming agricultural lands as a viable option.

“We are open to the potential to reclaim land once the sea recedes that either was once theirs (farmers) or land that was leased by farmers,” Hoffman-Floerke said. “There's nothing that says the water level has to be exactly at this location. There could be ways to erect barriers to keep the sea from an area that farmers and others may want to reclaim.

“We think land reclaimed for agriculture can be worked into the plan.”

When Kalin was asked if he supported or opposed the proposed state plan, he took a long breath.

“I'm opposed to it from the standpoint that I don't think anybody is willing to pay $9 billion for the plan. I particularly don't like the latest version that puts the lake in the south end for recreation for Imperial County residents.”

Instead, he endorses the committee's Alternative Four — Concentric Lakes proposal. The plan includes 88,000 acres of habitat similar to the saline habitat complex in four concentric water bodies with dedicated inflows for air quality management, but no long-term facilities.

When Kalin was asked what report card grade he would give the announced state plan, he said, “I'd give it a D. I don't think you need a fancy plan like that to solve the problem when there are others out there for almost one-fifth the costs.”

“The one the (Imperial County) Farm Bureau has backed creates the saline habitat complex necessary for habitat, creates a stable shoreline, works with any amount of water that comes in, whether 1,000,000 acre-feet or 200,000 acre-feet. It's cheap to operate; $2 billion is easier to fund than $9 billion.”

The committee did not endorse Chrisman's plan, Kalin noted. “We weren't allowed to choose that plan. We came up with alternatives and the attributes a plan should have. The committee had no input on Chrisman's plan.”

William DuBois farmed for 25 years in the El Centro area including hay, alfalfa, oilseed crops, cotton, sugarbeets and hogs. Today the retired farmer owns 400 acres currently leased to other farmers.

DuBois shares Kalin's view — the announced plan is too costly.

“DWR has inflated ideas about how much money the public is willing to spend on the Salton Sea,” DuBois said. “I'm disappointed in what's being proposed now.”

He supports Alternative Four, a simpler answer with a smaller price tag.

Yet he believes his voice on the committee was heard. “I've known Mike Chrisman for a long time. He is a good thinker and a good administrator. I would not accuse him of not considering what the Farm Bureau has suggested,” DuBois said.

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