The Future of the Salton Sea: Interview with Malissa McKeith and Phillip Johnson, Part 1

Interview by Blake Plante (PO ‘18), Blog Writer

Transcribed by Jessie Levin (PO ‘18), Staff Writer, and Blake Plante (PO ’18), Blog Writer

Malissa McKeith is a veteran environmental attorney and a partner and chair emerita of the Los Angeles-based legal firm, Lewis Brisbois. She is co-founder and president of Citizens United for Resources and the Environment, Inc. (CURE), which is a grassroots non-profit that empowers local communities to demand accountability in government decisions involving natural resources and land use. McKeith earned her BA in political science from UCLA and a law degree from the University of San Francisco.

Philip Johnson is the Assistant Executive Director of the Salton Sea Authority. He serves as Chair of the Salton Sea Management Program’s Long Range Planning Committee, and specializes in developing legislative and policy strategies which address the range of concerns surrounding the sea. Johnson earned his BA in Political Science and History at Simpson College and a Masters in Public Administration from the CSU San Bernardino.



CJLPP: Just to start us off, could you both contextualize the Salton Sea and provide why it’s important to California—especially in regards to voting in the upcoming years.


Johnson: The Salton Sea, as you may or may not know, is the largest inland lake. It is essentially, or always has been, an agricultural sump since its formation in 1905. Historically, it was ancient Lake Cahuilla. I think the first formation was in 700 AD. Since becoming an agricultural sump up until 15 to 20 years ago, it has become completely filled. 15 years ago, or 20 years ago was when it started to really drop down from that level. In that time, or before that time, it developed communities around it. It developed itself as a major pacific flyway stop, which out of the 660 species that go up and down the Pacific flyway, at least 400 stop or breed there. And as I heard that number before on the phone the other day from Chris[i], 90 percent of California’s areas for that have disappeared. This is understandable looking at how urbanization has taken effect. It’s not okay in a lot of aspects, but you can understand why. From a human health, ecological, and economic perspective—which always takes a backseat to health and ecological—that is where our organization comes in. So that’s really where the importance lies.

You have a state and its partners that are very liable for the area around it. Most of the partners signed the QSA (Quantification Settlement Agreement), making the state liable. The QSA is essentially why we are ramped up right now. Why crisis mode is happening. This was an agreement between San Diego County Water Authority, the Bureau of Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District and the state. This is the transfer of water from agricultural to urban areas. If San Diego needs water, the Coachella Valley Water district also gets water. So, the Coachella Valley water district also gets water from that deal as well. But, it also takes away water going in the sea, which was already declining due to the 15-year drought and the many different conservative ways to farm now. It’s an agricultural sump so most of the water that comes from there is the Colorado River Water which is used on the farmland around the area. So if they are using better techniques or conserving more water, obviously less water is coming into the sea. So, we have this situation where the Salton Sea has the potential to unearth a ton of playa. And this playa will become very emissive, especially in the area that’s around there. The dust storms really pick things up and really get things. They can move things from the air shed all the way out to L.A, they really are big storms.

So, you have these major human health impacts and you probably can’t even explain the ecological impacts. I think right now people down there are still trying to figure out what impacts are already taking place. You have the salinity level hitting over 60 parts per 1,000, which is double what the ocean is. And, honestly, the tilapia there, you talk to people (the biologists and the people who work in the fisheries) and they are like “yeah, I mean they die off after 55” and “they die off after 56”. So they actually have become a very resilient breed. But, at some point, that’s going to turn and that’s the major food source for a lot of the birds that stop over there. So, without the fish, there’s no more birds.

It’s really hard for me to explain this in a couple of minutes but that’s kind of it from ours and the area’s economic perspectives. It’s literally the poster child for a disadvantaged community around the sea. A lot of the time, these people are left high and dry. One way to support these people would be to restore what we can of the sea by bringing investments to the area. Some people don’t think it’s as fast as it needs to be and that there isn’t as much of an emphasis on the economy and I agree with them to a certain extent because I think the sea is this potential for an investment. If you put a dollar in, you impact human health, you impact ecological issues, and you can help one of the poorest areas in the state. There’s a lot of return on your investment. So we do see it as that way. It just depends on how you do that and at the same time impact the ecological and human health issues which always take the forefront, at least from most people’s perspectives.


McKeith:  To give the reader some perspective, the Salton Sea stretches from the Indio/Thermal area on the North—where they have the Coachella Festival every year for the rock fans out there—down to the Mexican border. So, it is California’s largest inland lake and when it was a thriving sea in the 50’s and 60’s, it had yacht clubs and a tremendous amount of economic development. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack used to go perform there and it had the international water ski competitions. The sea experienced a lot of flooding in the 70’s which wiped out all that infrastructure that was there and then it slowly started to decline after that. Mostly, because of climate but also because of the fact that it’s a closed body. So, all of what Phil has said is true. It is a major flyway. If the sea declines without it being mitigated, there will be significant air pollution problems all throughout Palm Springs and the Imperial Valley. The salty dust that comes off of the sea will impact agriculture in the Imperial Valley which is the source of most winter vegetables that people eat in the United States. Also, it will increase asthma rates in an area that already has some of the highest asthma rates in the state. I sat on the American Lung Association board in California and the Imperial Valley is very polluted already.

So the sea is both a big albatross potentially, but it could also be one of the huge economic drivers for inland Southern California. The problem is that the sea is not a priority. You might have read in the newspaper yesterday or today that the Metropolitan Water District just voted to put 4.9 billion dollars into Bay Delta in Northern California, to provide that area with a reliable water source. Well, the decline of the Salton Sea is tied directly to the Metropolitan Water District having a reliable water source from the Colorado River—for which they didn’t have to pay anywhere near 4.9 billion dollars. That is the challenge we have for the sea. To get the sea to a place where it would be a viable restored sea with economic development, mitigating the air pollution, keeping that habitat in place, you’re looking at a significant amount of dollars. Without that money, which has not been allocated, the sea is about to decline very very rapidly since people have been sort of artificially propping it up the last fifteen years by paying farmers to fallow so their water would go directly into the sea. Once that mitigation water stops, which it will at the end of this year, the salinity levels in the sea are going to go from the 62-65 parts per thousand that Phil mentioned to potentially…


Johnson: They haven’t nailed it down yet.


McKeith: It will kill everything in the sea and the elevations. (When Phil’s talking about the elevations, it’s just the water levels). It’s at a certain level and has already receded so far. It’s just going to decline on steroids. Kind of like climate change, there is point at which you pass the tipping point, where you’re not going back. There will be a point with the sea where we can’t really fix it or it will be like Owen’s Lake in Northern California, which was a huge dustbowl. LA has now put billions of dollars into fixing it but fixing it looks like moonscape. It solves the dust problem but it is no place you or I would want to go on vacation. So, what we are facing today, to put it into context, is a question of what we want as Californians. Do we want a beautiful place in the middle of the desert that provides lots of jobs, keeps the birds alive, and allows poor communities to actually thrive? Or, are we going to have another Owen’s Lake that people will have to deal with in 30 or 40 years from now that will cost a lot of money?


CJLPP: There’s a 200 million dollar water parks bond that impacts the entire state of California that will tentatively be put onto the ballot for 2018. Assuming that this bill is signed, do you think that it will be a substantial solution in any way?


Johnson: From the perspective of the Salton Sea Authority and partially from the perspective of the state (since I work with Bruce Wilcox, the Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy), this was a year where we weren’t expecting any money. The state had already come out and said that there would be no more general fund money this year. We were looking through multiple avenues to get bond money. There was the Hueso bill, which was 500 million dollars. There still are some other routes in which we are looking but, in my opinion, from here you’re looking at getting zero money from a plan that is estimated to cost 383 million dollars. If you normally have 80 million dollars (technically 60 million dollars due to administrative costs) from the Governor’s budget, getting 200 million dollars, which will last you maybe six years is a huge deal. When you have the money, there is the potential for projects to get done sooner. I think it’s a huge win if you look at it in perspective. If you look at it from 20 years ago or if you don’t think that the 10-year plan is the correct plan, then of course, 200 million is not going to be enough. If you look at if from the perspective of how much the water bond that impacts the entire state is, it is four billion dollars. The Salton Sea was not going to get four billion dollars from the state of California.


McKeith: That’s the problem.


Johnson: That’s the reality, too. You talk about unfunded liabilities and this whole state has unfunded liabilities like the pensions and everything coming up. Even these bonds, we continually do bond after bond after bond and that money doesn’t come out of nowhere so…

Trust me, I would love for all the money in the world to come into the sea, but, realistically,  from the Governor and the state’s position and because we didn’t think we’d get any money this year, 200 million was the most amount of money the sea has ever gotten. From that perspective, I think you can see it as a positive step.


McKeith: I strongly disagree for the following reasons. The QSA transferred billions of dollars of water from the Imperial Valley to the Coast. As part of the deal, and regrettably, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) did not hold the state to a firm and funded commitment before they transferred that water. The state basically assured the IID that they would mitigate the consequences of that water transfer. The first 133 million dollars get paid by the water agencies and the state took on a contractual obligation for the rest. At that time I had told IID that’s like a guy offering you a ring in the morning. You are not likely to get the ring upfront before you put out. Due to a lot of political pressures, IID transferred the water. So you have a water deal that benefited people economically by billions of dollars.

The State Legislative Office, the Department of Water Resources, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife Service did a very comprehensive environmental impact report in 2008. They looked at a number of alternatives for the Salton Sea. They concluded that it would cost 8.9 billion dollars to come up with an alternative that would fully restore the Salton Sea. So now, they’re offering us maybe 200 million dollars (less than 4% of that needed money). You need to ask yourself: if you need a lot to survive and someone is offering you so little, is it really going to do any good? The answer is yes. It will produce some wetlands that otherwise wouldn’t be there, but that will be eclipsed by the overall damage that will be caused. We are lacking a truly economic analysis of what this is going to cost the State of California in 20 or 30 years, when they actually have to address the issue because you have people in Emergency Rooms. Or you have to address the issue because the guys who like to golf at La Quinta can’t golf there any longer because it stinks. Or the air quality is so bad in Palm Desert that tourism goes down. When it is a crisis, someone will deal with it. That number is very likely to eclipse whatever it ought to cost the state of California now. If this was a priority, we would see the money that they committed to 15 years ago when the Imperial Valley solved California’s water issues on the Colorado River. This isn’t happening because there’s not enough public will to demand it to happen. If we get 200 million, it’s better than getting nothing.


CJLPP: Let’s stay at the significance of that damage for a little while. You’re saying that even if the $200 million bond passes, it will not be enough to substantially solve the problem?


McKeith: It’s not going to save the sea. The sea will shrink, and as a result will have such high salinity that nothing will be alive.  You will have a sump. Phil called it an agricultural sump. It will not sustain bird life. With that 200 million dollars, they are going to create some wetlands along the shoreline to hopefully keep down dust and to allow the birds to survive. There will be wetlands, but no sea.  As a part of the proposed Salton Sea management plan (where the 200 million dollars will go), they plan within five years to come out with a long-term plan. We have spent 15 years planning long term. We have spent millions of dollars planning long term (that’s what that 2008 report was). I’m wondering, why would it take five years to come up with a long-term plan? We have had 15 years of this. We will not have a sea if we don’t have a long-term plan in five years. If we can’t get 200 million dollars today, why does anyone think we’d get more money in five years? It’s just not likely. We have other problems competing for those dollars: healthcare, unfunded pensions, ect. So, should we just give up?


Johnson: I work on this everyday. I don’t give up at all. Looking at the history of the project, it has never gotten the appropriate funding. It gets a lot of attention because legislators like to make their stops over here. From that perspective, I agree that it’s never gotten the correct funding. Keeping in mind the many iterations this project has gone through, you have to prove that there can be progress in order to prove to the people who have money that it’s a worthwhile investment. From a moral perspective, I understand that you shouldn’t have to, but from a financial perspective, we need to be sure of the plan. If no one can agree on a plan, no one is willing to write a blank check. To McKeith’s point, Michael Cohen, who did Hazardous Toll, which showed that 70 billion—


McKeith: Michael Cohen is a researcher for the Pacific Institute who has committed much of his life to dealing with the Salton Sea. But it is not an economic plan, like a beacon economics or someone who is the private sector economics world would do based on development. Having been in private practice (hedge fund or corporate real estate), I know there is no business plan for fixing the Salton Sea. You are right. With bearcats like Congressman Ken Calvert, there has not been one agency managing the sea. There is no one plan that everyone can agree to so it’s tough to get behind it. In that sense, having the Salton Sea management plan looks good. Except, it’s so pathetically little, 10 years too late, about one tenth of what’s needed. It is a plan and the danger of it is that it will make people feel like there’s a plan that’s going to solve something. There’s going to be a lot of people who are going think everything is great now that there’s a plan, everything is solved because most people’s attention levels don’t lend themselves to appreciating the details. It will created a feel good moment in time where people are at least agreeing on something. What they are agreeing on though, is a day late and a dollar short. That is why it is difficult.

I get it, who wants to fight another 10 years? I did fight and I know what that’s about. When I talk to the environmental organizations, they say “We’d like to fight but we don’t have the capacity to fight”. If you look at the water agencies, the people who’d like the sea to die so they can transfer more water out of the Imperial Valley, they have a lot of money and have a huge economic incentive to let the sea die. They are not the ones who are going to be holding the bag when it does. That’s what you’re up against when you start looking at it.  We could demand better than the 10-year plan. But politically, and on the public relations side of that (hiring lobbyists and doing those type of things to force the Governor’s hand on something), that political will isn’t there.

[i] Chris Schoneman, manager of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

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