Feds: Colorado River deal wouldn't harm people, wildlife at Salton Sea – Desert Sun

The federal government and Imperial Irrigation District on Friday unveiled a key environmental assessment of a potential huge Colorado River conservation deal that could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water through 2026 — and yield the agency and area farmers as much as $700 million in public funds.
Growers said they’re ready to begin summertime fallowing and other measures as soon as the paperwork is finalized, and the clock is ticking. But a veteran analyst of intertwined Colorado River and Salton Sea issues and an area environmental justice advocate both said they have concerns.
The proposed System Conservation Implementation Agreement calls for up to 300,000 acre-feet a year to be conserved, or nearly 98 billion gallons of water — as much river water as the state of Nevada receives annually. That’s an extra 50,000 acre-feet more than was originally proposed by IID, itself sufficient to supply a small city. An acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, and is enough for a year’s worth of supply for about three households. And that would be on top of about half a million acre-feet of water that is already conserved and transferred to urban areas under earlier agreements.
The water district holds by far the largest and among the oldest rights to Colorado River water, giving its farmers top access to abundant amounts. But all are keenly aware of the long-term drought prognosis for the river system, and the ever present clamor of urban areas for more water.
The agreement, likely the last and largest of a series of deals struck between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and cities, tribes and wholesale water contractors since the river system neared dead pool two summers ago, could take effect within 30 days if a series of approvals of the key environmental document are made in rapid fire order. The river and its reservoirs, the nation’s largest, supply supply more than 30 million people with drinking water across seven western states, and irrigate millions of acres of farmland.
That document, a relatively short draft environmental assessment released Friday afternoon by Reclamation staff, says a full, time-consuming environmental review of the deal was not needed, because there would not be significant additional adverse impacts to endangered species, air quality or environmental justice communities from the relatively short-term program.
IID’s board of directors hastily called an emergency meeting at 4:30 p.m. Friday and authorized staff to use the draft document to begin preparing related contracts and other paperwork, pending a series of federal, state and its own final approvals.
After waiting more than a year for OKs of their original offer to conserve a million acre-feet of water by 2026, they and area growers are eager to move forward.
The assessment lays out extensive proposed monitoring of IID drain channels and nearby habitat where the endangered desert pupfish and Yuma Ridgeway’s rail bird have been documented. If levels of water approach zero or vegetation becomes too dry, emergency water would be trucked in, in coordination with state and federal wildlife agencies.
The draft report also said there were no major environmental justice impacts anticipated, despite possible higher rates of air pollution from the drying Salton Sea shoreline if more large amounts of runoff from area farm fields are reduced.
The county, one of the poorest in the state and largely made up of Latino residents, already suffers from the state’s highest asthma rates, and is out of compliance with federal standards for a key ingredient in smog, and for coarse dust.
The agreement would free up the bulk of a related $250 million in federal funds to allow revenue-strapped California to continue building marshes and wetlands along the edge of the fast-drying Salton Sea playa as part of its overdue 10-year-management plan, which would help both species and dust suppression. Last year, due to delays in approving the IID conservation deal, just $72 million was released.
But a leading area environmental justice advocate said the timing of those efforts in the latest assessment doesn’t add up.
IID’s Colorado River water manager, Tina Shields, said they would likely not conserve the full 300,000 acre-feet each year — and half of this summer would be over before the program could begin. But, she said, “300,000 acre-feet provides flexibility since on-farm conservation is variable and needs to be calculated at the end of the year.” She added that they wanted to include “max volume to ensure your conservation values don’t exceed (approved environmental) coverage,”
The head of a key farm group said they can do it, and they’ve been ready to do their part since early 2023. They are just waiting on Reclamation to finish its reviews.
“As a grower we can come up with the amounts of water, quantity depending on how soon the BOR (Bureau of Reclamation) can finish their analysis of the environmental issues, to help relieve the stress on the Colorado River and its reservoirs,” said Mark McBroom, head of IID’s agricultural water advisory committee and a large farmer himself. “But it all depends on (Reclamation) and the timing … we, the growers and IID … are prepared to start as soon as the issues are settled for all concerned.”
A key strategy would be so-called seasonal fallowing, where perennial alfalfa and other hardy plants are not watered for 60 days. Though that would reduce yields on what is a staple but typically lower price crop here, the farmers would be paid on an interim basis, and the plants could bounce back once irrigation resumed. But the clock is ticking for the second summer in a row because it needs to be done during the hot months, IID officials and farmers say, not during the cooler months when lettuces and other winter crops are grown. On-farm water efficiency equipment, which can be pricey, could also be eligible for payments.
But Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute who has analyzed intertwined Colorado River and Salton Sea water issues for years, said he was “troubled” by the environmental document on a first look. “They’re finessing it by saying it’s a short-term agreement. That’s probably accurate on its face, but it’s misleading in terms of other things that the state of California has proposed.”
Cohen, who said the interim agreement is a forerunner of a longer agreement that is currently being negotiated, said a cursory environmental assessment would not be adequate for a 20-year-agreement.
“My expectation is they would do a full environmental …. review and not a short term environmental assessment,” said Cohen. “They wouldn’t be able to just wave their hands and explain it away.”
As for tamping down harmful dust and other air pollution via California’s 10-year-management plan, a leading area environmental justice advocate said the timeline was off, and does not adequately evaluate community health concerns.
“The analysis assumes that the Salton Sea Air Quality Management Plan will fund restoration projects that will mitigate the short-term increase in exposed playa. However, the analysis predicts that those measures will not balance out the short-term increased exposure until 2045. This is very concerning,” said Luis Olmedo, Executive Director for Comite CIvico del Valle.
He added, “the analysis also claims that other sources of air pollution are the culprit and implies that additional exposed playa is not an environmental justice issue. These claims need additional vetting, and it is important that the USEPA be allowed to do additional due diligence and should have the opportunity to comment on the health and environmental impacts.”
Cohen praised recent efforts by state and federal agencies to do something about the Salton Sea, but agreed that in terms of draining it further for conservation, “I think how they address the timing of impacts needs to be explored further.”
Public comments on the draft will be accepted until June 28, and if being sent by mail must be postmarked by July 27. The draft is available at https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g2000/envdocs/IID/00_FinalDraftEAIID_508ADAFinal.pdf.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun and co-authors USA Today Climate Point. She can be reached at jwilson@gannett.com