After the DCP…

April 30, 2019

There’s something to be said for sustainability.

What that something is, though, is hard to say.

As concepts go, it’s right up there with adaptability and durability, except that sustainability takes in a lot more territory.

Sustainability is self-contained. It is the means and the end presented as a package. Even when it is aspirational, as it most often is, there is a logic and an ethos to it that instills confidence and suppresses the natural tendency to be skeptical.

Sustainability, it seems, begets believability.

But in its biggest-picture context, sustainability is the ideal rather than the working model, the hoped-for outcome rather than the fungible one. That’s why believing, or wanting to believe, is so important to the process, because, depending on how everything works out, the difference can be stark, like having blanket coverage and owning a blanket.

It’s difficult to know where the Imperial Irrigation District’s “smaller but sustainable” Salton Sea falls on that continuum of hard and soft landings, but it is nothing if not an aspiration. Not the smaller part, as that is proceeding/receding at a record pace, but the sustainable corollary that was supposed to serve as a 10-year roadmap for the sea remains half-funded and has yielded no new projects on the ground.

To be fair, the state’s Salton Sea Management Program has roughly $280 million in committed funds and projects with performance milestones to cover 30,000 acres of exposed playa in the next decade. For a gauge of just how rapidly the shoreline is receding, consider that the total exposed lakebed in that same timeframe is projected to be more than 60,000 acres.

This is an inauspicious start to California finally meeting its restoration/mitigation obligation to the sea under the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement. But it is also the most viable path to something like sustainability for a lake that, until now, has been a living case study of official neglect and a synonym for death and dying.

Reports of the Salton Sea’s false death have not only been greatly exaggerated, they have been used as a pretext to question the efficacy of trying to save it. This approach to dealing with any potentially intractable problem by further stigmatizing it, a favorite of the hard-right, may have worked a generation or so ago, when the Salton Sea was still capable of being stigmatized, but in 2019 it sounds too much like environmental euthanasia to be taken seriously.

That’s because the one inescapable truth about the Salton Sea, not to mention the single most compelling argument for ensuring its sustainable future, is that it isn’t going anywhere.

What this means for the water transfers within California that were authorized under the QSA, or for the Drought Contingency Plan to protect critical elevations at Lakes Mead and Powell on the Colorado River is muddled and will take sorting out, now that IID and the Salton Sea have been banished to the island-nation of the Imperial Valley.

But when the next multi-state water-sharing pact is needed to sustain the two reservoirs, as it surely will be, there is going to be a reckoning and the Salton Sea question won’t be as easy to duck or deflect or to make disappear.

If sustainability is to be real on the Colorado River, then it has to be more than a dream for the Salton Sea. Because anything less than that low threshold won’t just be seen as unbelievable.

It will be unsustainable.

The Editors