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New plan calls for fallowing to save sea

October 17, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

As much as 143,000 acres of Imperial Valley farmland could be fallowed to provide water to the Salton Sea under a worst-case scenario of options to restore the ailing sea, according to a study not ready for public release.

The study, commissioned by the Salton Sea Authority and the Department of the Interior, also says the worst-case scenario is the least expensive and most cost-effective of six restoration methods to maintain the sea's elevation and reduce its salinity.

The sea's yearly inflow would have to be reduced to 800,000 acre-feet from 1.3 million to make the worst-case scenario likely, said SSA Executive Director Tom Kirk, who otherwise called that much fallowing "ludicrous."

Kirk said the draft study's findings will be made public in two weeks with a final document ready in about 60 days. He said the report is not finalized and has data that could be incorrect.

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"Fallowing is the challenging political issue in the Imperial Valley," Kirk said, adding when the draft environmental document associated with the IID/San Diego County Water Authority transfer comes out, it too, will include a fallowing alternative.

Andy Horne, a member of the SSA and Imperial Irrigation District boards, said the range of acreage being considered in the draft study is "startling."

Horne said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is seeking water to put into the sea and that the only place to get it is the state's agricultural entitlement, hence fallowing.

Horne said two assumptions being made by Reclamation are that the sea is worth saving and that the water transfer from IID to the San Diego County Water Authority will go forward. Horne said in light of the potential environmental costs, the transfer is not "a given."

Other local SSA board members have seen the draft report.

County Supervisor Gary Wyatt said federal law prohibits the movement of Colorado River water to the sea for purposes of restoration efforts and that fallowing would involve that type of movement.

"It's too early to have any discussions about fallowing," he said. "At the current time I can't see it as occurring."

Wyatt said the economic impacts of fallowing have not been assessed and the issue needs further discussion.

"We're a long way away," Wyatt said.

Kirk said whether water from fallowing can go to the Salton Sea or is prohibited under current law is "the billion-dollar question." He said the water could be looked at as additional leaching water, meaning water meant to remove salts from the soil.

The leaching idea is that of Tom Levy, general manager/chief engineer of the Coachella Valley Water District.

Levy said water can properly be used to leach salts from soil, and by using additional amounts of water to increase leaching, the land can be used to grow higher-value crops. The increased leaching water would then flow to the sea.

Short of that, Levy said there is no legal way to take Colorado River water and move it to the sea after fallowing land. If it were legal, Levy said he suggested the Salton Sea Authority look at where it would be most cost-effective to fallow for such a purpose.

"I have said, it seems to me, that when you look at doing that, you have to look at doing it both in the Imperial and Coachella valley," he said regarding potential fallowing.

He said the controlling factor for fallowing should be cost.

Meanwhile, at Thursday's meeting of the SSA board of directors, a Reclamation economist will discuss the third-party impacts of fallowing. The draft report of alternatives might be touched upon as well.

County Supervisor Wally Leimgruber, also an SSA board member, said the report states solar ponds are the most cost-effective alternative for reducing the sea's salinity and also the most controversial method because of the potential for land conversion, the term used in the report for fallowing.

"There is absolutely a need for saving the sea," Leimgruber said, adding it is an important economic factor for Imperial and Riverside counties. He said fallowing for purposes of restoring the Salton Sea is a "viable alternative."

IID Director Stella Mendoza, also on the SSA board, could not be reached for comment.

The draft alternatives report describes six methods by which the sea could be restored. The cost of each alternative depends on the amount of water that would still flow into the sea, which in turn is a deciding factor on how much salt must be removed for successful restoration. The alternatives are:

· in-sea solar ponds, with terraced in-sea salt-disposal facilities, constructed using standard dike-construction procedures. The cost ranges from $1.35 billion to $1.6 billion.

· ground-based enhanced-evaporation systems, based on turbo-enhanced blower units. The cost is about $375 million.

· tower-based enhanced-evaporation systems, constructed of in-line shower and on-land terraced salt-disposal facilities. The cost is about $325 million.

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