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California has a new $383 million plan for the shrinking Salton Sea

After years of delays, California’s plans for the shrinking Salton Sea are finally starting to take shape.

A $383 million plan released by the state’s Natural Resources Agency on Thursday lays out a schedule for building thousands of acres of ponds and wetlands that will cover up stretches of dusty lakebed and create habitat for birds as the lake recedes.

The state’s blueprint focuses on constructing a patchwork of ponds that will spread out along the lake’s north and south shores during the next 10 years. Much of the funding has yet to be approved by the Legislature, and the construction projects will lag behind the pace of the sea’s decline, covering up only a portion of the vast expanses of lakebed that will be left dry and exposed to the desert winds.

But state officials say the plan represents a critical initial step in a long-term process of intervening to ameliorate a costly crisis at California’s largest lake. The immediate goals are to preserve a vital oasis for migratory birds and combat windblown dust in an area already struggling with some of the state’s highest asthma rates.

Time is of the essence because at the end of this year, the flows of water into the Salton Sea will decrease under a water transfer deal and the lake’s level will begin to decline more rapidly.

“This plan is a path forward to address air quality and habitat issues at the Salton Sea for the first time,” said Bruce Wilcox, the state’s assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy. “It’s a very important milestone.”

Sudden declines of birds, fish could signal ‘tipping point’ at Salton Sea The state has budgeted $80.5 million so far to begin designing and building canals and ponds along portions of the shore. Wilcox said construction will start next year, and the plan outlines needs for additional funding that will be presented to lawmakers in Sacramento.

“That probably is the single most important thing, I think: It gives the Legislature a target,” Wilcox said. “We have a funding plan, an annual cost that we can give to the state Legislature, and that varies annually from $20 million to $40 million over the course of the next 10 years.”

Wilcox, who oversaw the plan’s preparation, was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 to lead the state’s efforts at the Salton Sea. Wilcox had pledged in November to have the document ready by early January, but he said he underestimated how long it would take. An analysis of the projected costs contributed to the three-month delay.

The recent progress in creating a lineup of projects follows previous years of inaction, which had led to frustration among officials in Imperial and Riverside counties and prompted calls for the state to take on a larger role.

Last year, the lack of a state plan for the Salton Sea emerged as a sticking point in negotiations between California, Arizona and Nevada on a deal to temporarily use less water from the heavily tapped Colorado River, which has dwindled during 17 years of drought. Now that the state has a plan, a Colorado River agreement may become more achievable.

The state’s new strategy focuses on the next 10 years only and does not include long-term fixes. But Wilcox said he hopes having this plan in place will help clear the way for subsequent decisions on long-term strategies – which he anticipates might bring the total costs to between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

One option to be studied, Wilcox said, involves building a “perimeter lake” that would stretch more than 60 miles along the lake’s west shore and cover up the dust-emitting lakebed. Another option would involve importing water to boost the lake’s levels. It could be seawater brought by canal from the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific, or brackish groundwater brought by pipeline from elsewhere in Southern California.

The idea of piping in water to the sea has long drawn passionate advocates and has long been dismissed by many in government as too costly or complicated. But it hasn’t been ruled out.

“We think it might be a viable solution,” Wilcox said. “I think in the past we never even considered it. I think now we are.”

While those long-term approaches are studied, the initial draft of the state’s 10-year plan says the immediate aims are to protect public health and wildlife and “mitigate harm to communities and ecosystems” as the sea declines.

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