The Salton Sea was once California’s biggest tourist attraction — now, with some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, it’s the state’s rustiest, dustiest failed region. With water usage in Southern California at a premium, the accidentally human-made sea is drying up, with its only significant inflow coming from nearby farm runoff. It’s still vital wetlands for 400 species of migratory birds, but the sea is poised to evaporate into a 365-square-mile dust bowl right next to Palm Springs within just a few years. And while it may not be blowing airborne toxins all over southern California and Arizona just yet, it’s already assaulting Los Angeles with its powerful poison “odor events,” which scientists predict could only grow more intense. (You can read some background on the Salton Sea in my comic above, an excerpt from the [free!] December issue of Symbolia Magazine.)
Now for the first time in a while, politicians are actually sounding hopeful about mitigating the sea’s degradation. (Sorry, disaster tourists.) “We have a united vision. For the first time, there’s a chance to make some progress,” says one local county supervisor. But they have very different ideas on how to do it.
Democrat State Assemblymember Manuel Perez is sponsoring AB 71, a bill that would form a partnership between the several different regional authorities that control the sea and the area’s water, and allocate more than $50 million for sea restoration — money that’s been sitting in “the vacuum in state government,” according to Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chair John Benoit. Perez is also pushing for more oversight of those funds, after millions have been spent on inconclusive research and planning.
Meanwhile, the local Republican Assemblymember, Brian Nestande, is pushing a bill to promote special fundraising license plates, like the ones that already exist for Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, that would also promote the cause on the road. “We can make millions of dollars,” says Nestande.
Unfortunately, the price tag for the sea’s restoration is in the billions. But in the case of both bills, local politicians are sick of waiting for the state or federal government to swoop in and save them.
“My theory is if you hold out hope for that big check from the federal government or state government … we will be sitting here talking about this 10 years later, just as we’re talking about it now and just as we talked about it 10 years ago,” Nestande told The Desert Sun. “We have to start looking locally at what we can do to fund this restoration project.”
Or we have to batten down the hatches, and fast.