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Boxer Calls for Accountability on Salton Sea

Urgent Action Must Be Taken to Avoid Severe Environmental and Health-Related Consequences


August 20, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today urged local, state and federal officials to take the immediate and long-term steps needed to restore the Salton Sea and ensure it remains a critical part of the region's natural habitat for future generations.

"If we don't act faster than we are acting now, we will face a public health disaster and an environmental disaster," Senator Boxer said. "There must be no backpedaling, because the dust won't wait for us to act, the birds won't wait for us to act and our children's lungs won't wait for us to act!"

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, faces eroding air quality, diminishing water supplies, and massive fish die-offs. The sea is at high risk of turning into a public health emergency. Impacts are already being felt in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, and as far away as Los Angeles. Restoring the sea is also a national wildlife priority, since it serves as a vital stopover point along the Pacific Flyway for up to two-thirds of U.S. continental bird species.

A 2014 study from the Pacific Institute, a global water think-tank, found that Californians could face $70 billion in costs, ranging from lower property values to dramatically higher health care costs for respiratory illnesses, if action is not taken to save the sea.

This year, California lawmakers budgeted $80.5 million, more than ever before, for Salton Sea projects. This investment will help build canals and artificial wetlands around the Sea. The canals will carry water from the New and Alamo Rivers to the shoreline, and then shallow ponds will be built around the Sea to reduce airborne dust and protect birds and fish. Senator Boxer also included provisions to encourage the Army Corps' participation in Salton Sea restoration in her Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) this year. WRDA authorizes flood control, navigation, environmental restoration, and other water projects across the country.

"Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced $3 million for Salton Sea restoration and we are already starting to see the progress of these restoration projects like the one at Red Hill Bay," Senator Boxer said. "Still, it is not enough. There is much more we must do!"

The full text of the speech follows:

Thank you, Supervisor Kelley, for the introduction, and to all the local and state officials whom I asked to come here today to address the critical need to restore the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea, which is California's largest lake, was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded and broke through irrigation canals. It serves as an important nesting and stopover site on the Pacific flyway for more than 400 species of birds. The sea also became a major recreation destination in the middle of the last century.

This national treasure is at risk and faces dire challenges because the water that flows into the sea is disappearing. The Salton Sea has been sustained by agricultural runoff for nearly a century. But this water runoff has been declining because of an agreement in 2003, which shifted some water to urban users.

It was clear that population growth, drought and longstanding water rights issues had to be resolved.

Matters will get worse in 2017 when water deliveries to offset impacts of the 2003 agreement are scheduled to end.

And measures to address continuing drought in the Colorado River basin could result in even less water flowing into the sea in future years.

So the sea is drying up at an alarming pace, and we better deal with it. Already we have seen massive fish die-offs and declining bird populations.

As the Desert Sun recently reported, these sudden changes could signal a tipping point for the sea. We are looking at an impact on public health and that adds even more urgency.

We have seen what happens when the desert wind kicks up toxic dust off the lake bed - filled with pesticides, fertilizers and many chemicals. So, if we don't act, the Salton Sea will become a massive dust bowl.

We know already that children who live near the Salton Sea have the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state.

And then there is the strong odor of hydrogen sulfide being released by the dying sea from decaying fish, leaves and other organic matter, and the odor can extend all the way to Los Angeles - more than 100 miles away.

On top of all of this, we have to deal with a warming climate which is expected to exacerbate these problems. As the temperature warms, the rate of evaporation from the sea will increase, accelerating the decline of sea levels which compounds the air quality problems.

I am here today to say that if we don't act faster than we are acting now, we will face a public health disaster and an environmental disaster.

And there's more.

The Pacific Institute, which is a global water think tank, estimated that the continued failure to protect and preserve the Salton Sea could cost as much as $70 billion over the next 30 years due to worsening air quality and the loss of valuable ecological habitat - combined with diminished recreational revenue and property devaluation.

Seventy billion dollars is the cost of doing too little, and let me say we are doing too little right now and the consequences are too great!

Yet there are some positive steps to report.

In June, Governor Brown signed into law a state budget that included $80.5 million for Salton Sea restoration - funding that came from the landmark $7.5 billion water bond passed by California voters two years ago.

Let me tell everyone here that rescuing the Salton Sea was one of the selling points for this water bond in 2014. So let's not forget that!

I call on the state legislature to step up and fill the promises made.

Approval of the first water bond funding for the Salton Sea is an important milestone. This investment will help build canals and artificial wetlands around the sea.

The canals will carry water from the New and Alamo Rivers to the shoreline, and then shallow ponds will be built around the sea to help keep the dust down and protect birds and fish.

These are good steps by the state.

On the federal level, earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced an additional $3 million for Salton Sea restoration. These funds will be used to support the state's long-term planning for the sea.

In addition, it will fund a 31-acre wetland restoration project along the Alamo River to restore critical habitat and improve water quality flowing into the sea.

We are already starting to see the progress of some restoration projects - like the one at Red Hill Bay where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Imperial Irrigation District and the State of California are working together to restore 420 acres of wetlands to control dust and provide habitat for fish and the many migratory birds that rely on the Salton Sea. This $3.5 million project is an important start and will help guide other restoration projects.

In 2007, there was a plan approved by the state.

Because of that, I was able to include a provision to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work with the State of California on restoration of the Salton Sea.

I want to state very clearly that my provision was critical for getting the federal government to be a partner in this effort. Before 2007, there was no federal authorization to carry out restoration projects in the Salton Sea. So I want to thank all of my colleagues on the Environment and Public Works Committee who helped to pass this important legislation.

Let me be clear: while the state will issue a new plan at the end of this year, my work was made much more difficult because the original 2007 plan was abandoned.

But I kept up the fight, and in 2013, Congressman Ruiz and I brought then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar here to shine a spotlight on the Salton Sea and highlight the urgency of this issue. I am so grateful to him. I ran into Secretary Salazar recently and he asked about progress on the Salton Sea restoration.

In 2014, as Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I was able to work with my colleagues to pass the first Water Resources Development Act in seven years. President Obama signed that bill, which required the Army Corps to prioritize restoration projects that would address a public health threat. This brought additional focus to the Salton Sea.

However, even though the President put funds in the budget for the Salton Sea, I am upset that the Army Corps has failed to fund the program for restoration of the sea that I created in 2007. I call on them to do what Congress intended for them to do!

When we passed a new Water Resources Development Act out of the EPW Committee earlier this year, I wanted to make sure that the sea received even more attention and that local authorities could partner with the Army Corps to carry out efforts to restore the Sea.

I want to thank my Republican colleague, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, for working with me to make sure that the new water bill allows the Salton Sea Authority, local governments, non-profit organizations, and tribes to partner with the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out projects here.

This updated bill, which I have urged Senator McConnell to bring up for a vote as soon as we get back, would also require the Army Corps to provide Congress with a plan for expeditiously completing priority ecosystem restoration projects that provide benefits for public health, such as restoration of the Salton Sea.

Here is the good news:

Eighty-point-five million in funding approved this year, which is the largest amount ever provided by the State of California for Salton Sea restoration;

Restoration projects which are already underway;

Legislation that makes clear that the federal government is a partner in the restoration of the Salton Sea.

But again, this is a crisis waiting to happen, and it is the time for firm leadership by every single stakeholder!

As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, planned restoration projects are years behind schedule, and the funding committed to restore the sea has not materialized. I completely agree with that assessment!

It is our responsibility. There are no more excuses.

Ultimately, saving the Salton Sea will require two things: 1) a plan everyone agrees on; and 2) the commitment at every level of government - to marshal the resources necessary to make this plan a reality!

I call on the California Natural Resources Agency, which leads the Salton Sea Management Program, to stick to its deadline of December 2016 to issue its long-range plan. This plan must be adopted without delay.

While an implementation blueprint for the long-term plan is being completed, we should begin carrying out the short-term and medium-term goals for restoring habitat and suppressing dust around the edges of the receding sea. The state has already published a list of shovel-ready projects that can be started now.

There must be no backpedaling, because the dust won't wait for us to act, the birds won't wait for us to act and the children's lungs won't wait for us to act!

We simply must do it!

In closing, we must always look at a challenge as an opportunity. There is huge renewable energy potential at the Salton Sea. Investing in solar and geothermal power could bring much-needed jobs to this area and provide a boost to the local economy and help combat climate change.

Everyone must come to the table and make serious commitments for implementing the plan to restore the sea. This has to be a true partnership at all levels.

The situation is dire, but it is far from hopeless. Immediate action is needed, and together we can stop the decline of this once-treasured resource.

While I will be leaving the Senate at the end of this year, I plan to do everything in my power during that time to help the Salton Sea. And I want you to know I am not retiring. I plan to keep fighting these fights - I will just be doing it from here in California. Even after I leave the Senate, I will do everything I can to help!

Let me end with a quote about the beauty of this place. Helen Burns, a longtime Salton Sea resident who opened Helen's Beach House - a popular restaurant, nightclub and boat marina - on Salton Sea Beach and published a small local newspaper, the Salton Seafarer, once told a reporter in a 1985 interview about the first time she saw the sea as a child in the 1920s.

Helen said, "I never saw anything so beautiful. The sun was shining, the sand was white, and I knew this was the place I wanted to live."

I'm not saying we can go back to that, but we can look forward to a new and vibrant future for the sea. The time to act is now. Our communities are depending on us.



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