Can California Farmers Save Water and the Dying Salton Sea?
Standing atop a rocky outcrop on the southeastern edge of the Salton Sea in southern California, Bruce Wilcox pointed to the wooden ruins of a boat dock that dates back to the 1960s, when the region was a marina that attracted sport fishermen and celebrities. On a sunny day last December, the dock sat hundreds of feet from the water, rendered obsolete by the shoreline’s steady withdrawal. No boats were visible anywhere on the shimmering blue water.
“The marina’s been dry for the last five or six years,” said Wilcox, 60, the environmental manager for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which manages water and energy in California’s Imperial Valley and has energy customers in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Covering nearly 350 square miles (900 square kilometers), the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It was created in 1905 when heavy rain and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell and overtake headgates along the Alamo canal. It was largely sustained by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but since the late 1990s the sea has been steadily shrinking, partly because the runoff has dwindled due to a combination of the ongoing California drought, more efficient irrigation methods, and changing crop patterns.
The sea’s decline will accelerate dramatically in 2018, when the IID must stop sending “mitigation water” to the lake as part of a pact known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA. Signed in 2003, the QSA was a deal between the U.S. Department of the Interior, California, and various water agencies in the state that placed California on a Colorado River water diet and transfers some of the river’s flow to San Diego and other cities, where water is scarce.
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