The Independent Review Panel on Evaluation of Water Importation Concepts for Long-Term Salton Sea Restoration (Panel) has recommended against importing ocean water to the Salton Sea. Interestingly, the Panel rejected all the submitted proposals and despite it not being part of their remit, offered their own proposal. The goal of this paper is to link the Salton Sea issue to the Colorado River water shortage and propose a sustainable plan for both. Time is running out and this new reality demands immediate action. The original RFI was issued in 2018 – drought, climate change and the rate at which Colorado River impoundments have freefallen makes the original RFI obsolete in the stark reality of 2022. The Salton Sea continues to shrink and intensifying the health and environmental issues that have been ‘studied’ for the last 40 years. We now have a Tier 2 shortage on the Colorado River which may soon become a dead pool issue. The need for ‘new’ water is critical and growing. Our goal is to highlight a sustainable ocean water importation strategy and to introduce a new technology that is the only answer to creating a healthy Salton Sea, a recovering Colorado River and an unlimited freshwater supply to Southern California’s cities and farms.
Water importation for the sole purpose of remediating the Salton Sea does not make sense. However, ocean water importation is essential to not only mitigate environmental and air quality issues at the Salton Sea, but also to supply new water to southern California farms and cities. New water will enhance the quality and extend the resources of the Colorado River while enabling the river to begin refilling the impoundments of the river which will restore system resiliency.
The Panel was not tasked to propose or define a new solution. Their proposal does not make sense and is totally taxpayer financed. The solution we are proposing is paid for by water end users. The Salton Sea environmental mitigation portion of the proposal is a positive benefit of implementing a water strategy that supplies new water to the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. This approach encompasses a universal solution to three problems – saving the Colorado River system, remediation of the Salton Sea environmental disaster and creating an equal partnership with Mexico. Fixing water in the West is not possible without the full cooperation of the Mexican people.
Most of the current solutions to either water shortage in the Colorado River system or remediation of the Salton Sea environmental disaster are considered and treated as separate unrelated issues. In fact, the immediacy of the drought has brought into stark focus the opportunity to create an integrated solution that relieves pressure on the Colorado River while simultaneously creating a full Salton Reservoir that supplies fresh sea water to be desalinated and conveyed to the cities of Southern California.
In order to have zero environmental effect on the Gulf of California and the Biosphere Reserve, water needs to be pumped from the groundwater aquifer adjacent to the Gulf of California. Pumping from the aquifer through the sand and gravel will promote sea water intrusion into the aquifer without disturbing the sea life in the Gulf or its shores. Sea water drawn from the Gulf of California at inland wells will fill Laguna Salada which will, in turn, provide a supply of salt water to a siphon that brings that salt water to the Salton Reservoir for a one direction solution. The siphon will allow the creation of hydroelectric power in the pipeline between the two reservoirs. Water will fall a total of 279 feet to the -223ft level of a full Salton Reservoir and provide the power to drive the turbines. At a water desalination level of 2 million AF/yr, the hydropower system will generate 300 MW/hr of electricity to be shared between Mexico and California. Southern California’s need for freshwater will mandate a full Salton Reservoir which will supply desalinated water to all the communities in southern California. This will ensure that playa is no longer exposed and wildlife diversity will return to the reservoir which will now be maintained at 33,000 PPM/TDS and -223 ft below sea level. With a full Salton Reservoir supplying water to a sustainable desalination system that has no effluent (ZLD), the ‘new’ distilled water can be added to the Southern California water delivery system at the northbound Coachella Canal and transferred to the Colorado River Aqueduct somewhere near Dillon Rd. in Indio.
As an equal partner in the development of the pipeline/reservoir system from the Gulf of California, to the Laguna Salada Reservoir, and on to the Salton Reservoir, Mexico will supply the ocean water to the US and be in a balanced position with the US in the development of freshwater resources to meet both Mexican and American needs.
Laguna Salada will become Mexico’s own water desalination hub for the cities and farms of northern Baja. The distilled water will be blended with Mexico’s full allocation of Colorado River water and it will receive its share of the electricity generated at the hydroelectric power station. Mexico is currently able to transport the blended desalinated water and Colorado River water via the existing aqueduct system that supplies Colorado River water to Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada.
Once full, the Salton Reservoir’s incoming ocean water and the water withdrawn for desalination will be balanced to maintain the lake level and its ocean level salinity. Desalinated water will be conveyed via the route of the Coachella Canal to a point where it can be transferred to the Colorado River Aqueduct by Metropolitan Water District (MWD) for further distribution to beach-side communities. This will create a one way flow of water from the ocean to the cities of Southern California. The ability to create desalinated water in this way will also allow freshwater to be created for Arizona, Nevada, Utah and even Colorado through water wheeling. For example, water wheeling is the ability to deliver water to users in LA made by desalination/water farms at the Salton Reservoir and paid for by Las Vegas. LA can then release a like amount of LA water rights to Las Vegas for delivery to Las Vegas from the Colorado River.
This water wheeling feature/mechanism will create a new large-scale source of water that can reduce dependency on the Colorado River. This supply of new water will begin the 20/40 year process of refilling all of the impoundments of the Colorado River system that have been drawn down to mitigate the effects of the current drought and over-drafting due to over allocation of the river.
The proposal advanced by the Panel is ineffectual and unsustainable and is neither financially nor environmentally sound. This proposal has only one funding mechanism and that is taxpayer support. All of the actions that the panel has identified and proposed are taxpayer funded and will require indefinite taxpayer support.
An examination of the Panel’s proposal reveals a completely unsustainable model that will do little if anything to modify the condition of the Salton Sea while creating a stream of unintended consequences that will destroy the fabric and character of Imperial County. The Panel’s proposal will require a much higher capital commitment to build and maintain. The overall costs of this project would be totally out of control and are not reflected in the proposed plan.
- Huntington Beach proposed desalination facility, a re-bid of the Carlsbad project was bid at a cost of $2.1B for 50,000 AF/year. The Panel’s proposal envisions the creation of 100,000 AF/yr so cost $4.2 billion just for desalination with a call out for evaporation pond brine management of 100,000AF/yr of effluent.
- Panel calls for voluntarily fallowing 50,000 acres of prime farmland to release 100,000 AF of irrigation water to the Salton Sea to make up for the 100,000 AF of effluent water being sent to evaporation ponds.
- The Panel’s plan has no source for additional water to cap or reverse the evaporation loss from the Salton Sea. It removes and replaces the same amount of water and does not account for ongoing natural evaporation
- 100,000 AF of effluent will require 16,666 acres (25.64 sq miles) of evaporation ponds to evaporate the water in the brine and create dry salt. These ponds will need to be lined with water proof barriers.
- 16,666 acres of land will be needed to create the evaporation ponds at a current cost of $20K/acre (cost of farmland) $333,000,000.
- Once dry, the brine will yield 17.2 billion tons of dry salt a year or 47,128 tons of dry salt a day that will need to be collected, transported and disposed of at cost to the state every day.
- Electrical power for the desalination plant estimated cost per year would be $48m.
- Operations and Maintenance (O&M) – no estimate because salt levels are double ocean salinity and may affect efficacy of membrane media
- The proposal does not consider new water for lithium production and processing
- Enhances no other current lake projects – does not reduce playa
- The Colorado River is already at a Tier TwoA shortage and expected to go to Tier 2B this year and Tier 3, early next year. There is no water available for any new applications or projects
- The US Government predicts dead pool in 2-3 years at Lake Powell and Lake Mead
- A new source of water needs to be found and exploited immediately
- 14m AF of unrestricted brackish groundwater exist under the Imperial Valley
- Loss of farm jobs will decimate Imperial County cities
- Fallowing will contribute to the desertification of existing productive farmland.
- The creation of 16,666 acres of lined evaporation ponds will disrupt many species and will result a large scale CEQA challenge for the project
The removal of farmland from crop production will inevitably result in higher priced food which will lead to inflation that falls heavily on the shoulders of the most vulnerable communities. It also means that farm workers will suffer. It is hard to understand the justification for fallowing land from an environmental standpoint – it’s just another term for desertification in the context of southern California.
We believe that the solution to all the issues with water in the US Southwest lie within a framework of capitalism and community that can be expressed as a Public-Private-Partnership (P3) that enlists capital markets and business savvy to provide real cost pricing for the true value of water to pay as you go customers. People will continue to receive the benefits of historically underpriced water that will be modified by the true cost of producing the unlimited freshwater needed to fuel the growth and development of future generations both in the US and Mexico.
Dan Bliss and Jon Becker
Global Water Farms, Inc.
P.S. We’ve monetized the salt.