The Future of the Salton Sea: Interview with Malissa McKeith and Phillip Johnson, Part 2

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

Continued from Part 1…

CJLPP: On the one hand, Phil is saying that the 200-million-dollar bond sets a good precedence—that once we have that, there will probably be more future funding. And Melissa, you’re saying that it will create this feel-good impression that the issue is “solved” and now people can move on. If the 200 million dollar plan is something that is so insubstantial that it will not reasonably rehabilitate the sea or even solve the problem of the environmental impacts of the degradation of the sea, what should we do instead?

McKeith: There has been no accountability in the process thus far. One alternative today would be if the State Water Resources Control Board (which is the agency that had to approve the water transfer from the Imperial Valley to San Diego) would approve the 10-year plan on the assumption that we are going to get the 200 million dollars in funding, but say that in the year 2020, we are going to have a full adjudicatory hearing on whether this is actually doing anything. There’s not even a 10-year plan. To be honest, there isn’t a SSMP yet. They are still debating what it should be and where the wetlands should go and whose land is going to be purchased. It’s not like if it passes today, it will implemented tomorrow. There’s going to be delay in going forward. We don’t know how much will work or whether it will work. My bigger problem is that I think we have to write off the sea. In 10 years, the sea isn’t going to be there.

Johnson: Well, that’s not true.

McKeith: What’s going to be there if the salinity is at 100 million…


Johnson: It doesn’t degrade that fast. You can look at the maps that many of the agencies have come out with. It does not degrade—


McKeith: The salinity levels?


Johnson: I know the salinity levels. There will still be a sea. I’m not going to disagree with you that the center of the sea could become basically a brine lake, just like Salt Lake. But, it’s a massive sea, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon and there are these issues. I think your argument is valid when it comes to when we get this longer term plan that goes along with the 10-year plan. I think that every agency involved in this is waiting on this question as well. I don’t think it’s valid in the sense that if you don’t have the 10-year plan, and yes it takes time to do planning and design and to sure up some of the different wetlands and how to construct them from and efficiency standpoint. That’s why it’s called  an adaptive management plan because—


McKeith: What percentage of the whole is that?


Johnson: You can keep coming out with percentages, but what the SSMP does, it looks at the rate at which the playa will be exposed, and it tries to mitigate that through either habitat or through something like surface roughing which is dust mitigation.


McKeith: But look at how much playa has already been exposed. Is it going to take care of that?


Johnson: It is looking at—


McKeith: I am asking these questions because I honestly don’t know the answer.


Johnson: That’s why a lot of them are off-lake. Originally, with the SSMP—


McKeith: It’s an evolving plan, but go ahead.


Johnson: You are right, it’s an adaptive because it is not finalized. Me and every agency involved can’t do anything about that. But, what they want to do is create these salt management ponds. There will be these huge water management ponds that are at different areas of the sea. These areas will be mostly Northern and Southern parts of the sea. These areas were chosen for two reasons. First off, this is where the water from the rivers end up and there was the reasoning for that (the water source from the rivers are there) and second off, that is where most of the playa exposure will happen. It will be more rapid at the North and South end, or at least that’s what is projected. What these water management ponds will do, which take most of the 60 million, is provide an avenue to basically supply these wetlands, when they are being built on the submissive playa that is uncovering as the water transfer goes away and it that is uncovering as the water transfer goes away and it will mitigate the effects that are going to be opened up. This is not an exact science. The playa could be less emissive in some places so it has to at some point be, at least from a responsibility standpoint, at least a bit of an adaptive management program because you have different situations. Even the North and the South end have different soil that you have to deal with. It is the human health and ecological impacts that are happening now. You have to have something that is going to impact those situations as fast as possible. I understand the hesitancy of people looking at this plan and saying that long term, this place will be just giant wetlands.


McKeith: I’m not hearing even that it’s going to be something that looks like the way we visualize wetlands. We start talking about surface—there was a word you use—


Johnson: Surface roughening is the cheapest form of dust mitigation.


McKeith: Exactly. I mean, you’re not going to build a house next to this thing. Here’s the thing, we have—


Johnson: Well, I mean, not everyone looks at it from a reality perspective either, human health does go over economic benefit.


McKeith: Right, but there are houses, you know, that, I’m not even going to respond to that. I just want to get back to a couple things. One of which is, for fifteen years, many hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to looking at the Salton Sea since the QSA passed. When the QSA passed, this fifteen years was supposed to be the time that the state of California would come up with a long-term restoration plan. It hasn’t happened in fifteen years, and it’s been tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. And how many acres of actual wetlands have been created in that fifteen year period? Zero from what I understand, other than the Torres Martinez project, and I’m not sure that’s done. So I’ve got an agency that’s had fifteen years to do what it was legally obligated to do while the mitigation water was happening. At a minimum since it hasn’t lived up to its end of the contract, it ought to be that the mitigation stays in the sea until there is a real plan. The water agencies want the mitigation water, they want to park it in Lake Mead because they get money when they do that, or they want to sell it. And because no one’s dealt with the Salton Sea, it ought to be they have to keep the mitigation water in there because it helps with the mitigation and the dust, while we’re starting to implement the SSMP, which is nothing more than mitigation.

It is not restoration; it is mitigating the air damage, it is not restoring a viable sea. It is dealing with habitat, it is dealing with dust; it is not dealing with what’s going to happen to the sea. So I’m Tzar of the day or a judge, or I have a magic wand, I would say “sorry IID (Imperial Irrigation District), you’re sticking the water in the sea until the state gets the act together”, because that puts political leverage on everybody to get their act together. Once the mitigation water goes to San Diego or it goes to Lake Mead, they’re going to go “Haha! We’ve got what we need! Good luck with the other”, because that’s exactly how they’ve acted for the last 15 years, and I have no reason to believe they’re going to be any different. So we’re going to end up with the SSMP, a 10-year plan that gets you maybe $20 million a year, $5 million of which is going to state employees, $15 million of which is going to go to building wetlands along the Salton Sea, and they can’t even tell us how much it costs for an acre of wetlands. We don’t know how much it costs for an acre of wetlands. Do you?


Johnson: The water management ponds are going to cost the $60 million that we have for construction available right now, from the governor’s budget. The rest of it makes the other processes easier to facilitate. That’s also where the water is going to be mixed, so that you have a lower part per thousand in these wetlands, because that’s also a huge part of it. You talk about just keeping the mitigation water in the sea, but that doesn’t solve the salinity. It’s a huge complex issue and I don’t know if there is a perfect fix for it, but I think you have to keep working—at least in a positive aspect—because you’ve got issues right now, and you have to try and solve those, and yes you have to keep putting the pressure on, and I know our agencies and the SSA wants to keep the pressure. I think even IID, you said they won’t care once the water’s to Lake Mead with the drought contingency plan, but I know that every single one of those agencies for the most part is pushing the state to come out with this long-term plan, whatever it looks like. And then, I think, maybe the real fight begins.


McKeith: Why does it take five years to come up with a long-term plan if everyone’s so interested in having it? There’s a stipulated order that’s before the State Water Resource Control Board, and it says you have to present a long-term plan in five years. In my experience, in college and every place else, I’ve turned my paper in on the day it was due and not sooner. I don’t think we’re going to see a long-term plan in five years. We’re going to have a change in administration. There’s potentially going to be the same person in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but changes of administrations are changes of administrations, and so we have another five years before they come up with a long-term plan, and what’s the remedy if they don’t come up with one?

If it were up to me, and again, I came out of private practice, and I’m going to say this tonight, I envy Donald Trump. You know why? Because when Donald Trump was in business, if he didn’t like something, he filed lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit, whether it was going to work, whether it wasn’t going to work, because he knew that sometimes the law is on your side. Which in this case it would be because the mitigation water shouldn’t transfer unless there’s an actual long-term plan, which the state admitted to in writing at the the time at the QSA. So, at a perfect world, you would sue. Everybody else could come up with a bond and do what they’re doing too, but the reality is that I am not confident, based on past history, that anybody’s going to come up with a better plan or more money in five years. And then there’s going to be no remedy. And then the sea will have died that much more. And then it’ll be well, it’s already dying, it’s going to be so much more expensive to fix it, and then it’ll go on and on and on, and I give the odds of there being anything restorative at very low odds, for that reason.


Johnson: So, just to ask you a question. If you were to sue, and depending on how long that would take to get the state to own up and put as much money as—what would happen in the interim? And what would the plan be?


McKeith: I would start with keeping the mitigation water in the sea. The shoreline has receded. Fifteen years ago, the mitigation water was supposed to keep the shoreline at the same elevation it would have been regardless of there being a QSA. Well, that assumption proved to be wrong, because the shoreline is five feet lower than it was projected to be. So we’re already behind where everyone thought they would be. But at a minimum you keep the water in the sea. That’s about $18 million a year out of a fund that exists that has $110 million in it. So the money is there, the water agencies had to put up $133 million, they still have $110, they invested well, in the last fifteen years the market’s gone up. They’ve got the money to keep the mitigation water going. You put the mitigation water in the sea, and you start doing the 10-year plan in the meantime. But you don’t pull the IV out of the body before you have another cure for it, or it will die, and that’s what’s going on. The Salton Sea is living off of life support. And we’re going to pull the IV out of the body, and we’re going to act like it’s not going to die, because we’re going to do a few little things. But it’s not an IV, it’s going to die. And people admit it’s going to die. People in your own agency admit that the way it’s going, if there’s not a long-term plan—


Johnson: Who in the Salton Sea Authority is going to admit it’s dead?


McKeith: People don’t want to admit it because it’s your job to keep going—


Johnson: Well, they’re member agencies, but nobody in the Salton Sea Authority that you’ve talked to has—


McKeith: But what’s going to save it, Phil, if there’s not a long-term plan?


Johnson: But you’re working on the presumption—


McKeith: Yeah, I am, because there hasn’t been in 15 years—


Johnson: Okay, but there hasn’t been this kind of momentum in that 15—because it’s a crisis.


McKeith: You know why there’s momentum? There is only momentum because it’s been 15 years and IID needs to go back to the State Water board, because the mitigation water’s going away.


CJLPP: To recontextualize, can you outline what some of the views are for some of the major organizations working on the project, including your own?


McKeith: Exhaustion (laughs).


Johnson: Well I mean, from a perspective, it’s not as doom and gloom as some people would make it seem.


McKeith: Happy to wager.


Johnson: You also aren’t involved in the day-to-do either. But—our agencies, like Malissa’s perspective, think that the 10-year plan is a step in the right direction. But yes, there does need to be a long-term plan. And with my talks with Bruce[i] they’re hoping to have that plan finalized in a year and a half. Whether or not that’s correct, at least that’s a step in the right direction from the five years that’s stipulated in the water board order. So you’re ramping that up. You know, there is pressure to get that long-term plan. There is consensus that it is a step in the right direction. There are people who are frustrated, as they all have their different interests.

Just to give you background, our member agencies—we’re JPA, so it’s a Joint Powers Agreement that formed us, and we were chartered by the State of California. We contain Riverside County, Imperial County, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District, and Torres Martinez. Now these are a lot of the major landholders and a lot of people who control the water in that area. And yes, there are people who are frustrated with parts of the 10-year plan, and that’s also going to come to a head because they’re frustrated with the equity. A lot of the money right now will go to the southern end of the sea. There’s many reasons for that, there’s some political, but that’s where some of the exposure is going to be from the perspective of when the QSA ends. I think, now that we’re here and more money’s come in, people are more frustrated. I think the biggest thing is that we have to keep everybody at the table. And that’s always been one of the hardest parts of this. That’s our biggest fight right now. A lot of people with the stipulated water order—there were a couple agencies and ours—were frustrated with it as well, that weren’t involved in that. And so the stipulated water order held San Diego Water Authority, IID, and—


McKeith: CBWD—


Johnson: CBWD wasn’t involved in the talks, from what I know.


McKeith: Hm, interesting.


Johnson: So, the northern side of the sea is not getting as much money as the southern side—so you get that interest—and they weren’t at the table for a decent amount of this. And that is creating issues, and the issues are not irrelevant because that’s been the biggest problem with this project. We have these major stakeholders, but we also have a ton of other stakeholders. We have Audubon, we have the EJ community, we have all the other tribes up north, the locals, I mean—come to one of our meetings at some point. You will see the most diverse group of stakeholders.


McKeith: What we don’t have are wealthy foundations. You know, Bill Gates lives right up the road, Larry Ellison lives right up the road. And finally, Leonardo DiCaprio made a $100,000 contribution to one of the environmental justice organizations—which is a step in the right direction, but when you’re looking at a problem that does need $3 or $4 billion to fix, that’s the reality. I look at it and until there’s an economic study that shows what it could mean to Riverside and Imperial County, and to Mexicali, to have a real vibrant sea, in terms of the long-term economic engine that would create for Southern California, and the construction jobs it would create in the meantime, there’s no incentive to even come up with that money. There’s no incentive for a private investor even, on a perfect day, to look at funding.


CJLPP: And this is really fascinating, because Palm Springs is in the line of the Salton Sea that goes all the way to the Mexican border, it used to be a hotspot for Hollywood—for Sonny Bono and the Beach Boys, and Frank Sinatra—and yet apparently, nobody is willing to invest a lot of wealth in revitalizing the sea.


McKeith: I don’t know why that is. I don’t know whether or not they are unaware of it. It is complicated, there is not a clear vision of how to fix it—which is a point that Phil made—you don’t know how to fix it, and you don’t know who’s responsible for fixing it. The only plan that’s been out there for the last 50 years or longer has been to build a canal to the Sea of Cortés and to import water from the Pacific Ocean into the Salton Sea, because originally in pre-geologic time, that was the flow of the Colorado River. But to do that kind of project requires a lot of money and big thinking—big thinking like we used to have when we were building the State Water Project, or the Hoover Dam. And it would require somebody in the private sector at this point, because I don’t see the ability of the state government or the federal government to really undertake the kind of planning required to do something like that. So you would need a good couple billion dollars to do real economic feasibility, real engineering.

However, unlike 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, we’ve got some things that would indicate that it is possible. One of which is there have been international treaties done with Mexico now to share water differently to store in Lake Mead, to restore the Colorado Delta. That took a long time to happen, but the relationship between the United States and Mexico notwithstanding, what we hear in Washington on the Colorado River is at an all-time high. There is wealth in Mexico that would like to see that kind of solution too, because they could imagine what it would look like to be able to take a boat through Mexicali into the Salton Sea, up to Palm Springs. And these aren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas. Congressman Brown in the 50s had the Army Corps of Engineers do a study about what it would look like to build locks, to build a canal. When U.S. Filter owned a lot of land in the Imperial Valley, when they were first looking at water transfers, they looked at—at least conceptually—doing a canal to the Sea of Cortés, because people have anticipated this problem on the Salton Sea a long time. It’s now here.

We were joking—Kevin and I—about doing an ad, having a barge out in the middle of the Salton Sea with a “For Sale” sign and putting it in the Dubai times. They have fixed stuff in Dubai, in the middle of the desert, and created beautiful environments for people, and that is not infeasible. It’s just a question of money, and will, and recognizing what the economic upside would be. But it’s so far away thinking like that from the tragic doom and gloom scenario on the other side of the spectrum, that bridging the gap between the two is what is hard. But at least for me, the course we’re going down is going one direction, and I mean, I would love to be pleasantly surprised. I’m waiting for the opportunity to go “well, I was wrong”.


Johnson: We’ll work on it.


McKeith: I’m happy to be wrong—I always think it’s better to do right than to be right. But it’s not the way it’s played out, and having sat on the Colorado River Board, and knowing all of the players in this game, and seeing how much of this gets negotiated behind the scenes, how few people were at the table negotiating this current plan, how the governor went from half a billion dollars—which was pathetically small—to $200 million, I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to play out all that differently than it had 15-20 years ago. But hope springs eternal.


Johnson: I don’t disagree with the fact that if you had a giant, private investment, maybe water import works, but you still have to have two canals because you’re bringing in salt water to an already saline lake that’s overrun with it. Probably desalinization is involved, which is not inexpensive and is not quick either, it’s just the time frame with that. The time frame to do a project like that—


McKeith: is long.


Johnson: Yeah, and you know, we get projects all the time unsolicited and now kind of solicited with the new request for information that the state’s going to be doing, and they’re going to be looking into that, but you know, the price ranges anywhere from $300 million to $50 billion. The time frame ranges, around 10, maybe 15 years. So whether or not that’s the case down the road, if you get the private investment, if you determine that’s the best course for the long-term plan, like I tell people all the time: I am not married to one thing, I think anything that can help this area with the human health issues, with the ecology, and I would love to see the disadvantaged communities helped as well. But you need to have something in the interim.


McKeith: I agree.


Johnson: And you have to get funding for that, and you have to keep pushing forward with that whether or not you think it is just some blunder and people are just doing it to try and throw people off. I am the chair of the long-term planning community, I have a phone call with Bruce next week about how our committee is going to coordinate with people looking into the long-term plan. The request for information, I believe, comes out in November, and they’re going to give people till March or April to respond, and then I don’t know where it goes from there. There’s also the perimeter lake that’s going to be studied. I think from my standpoint, the one thing that I just keep trying to emphasize, is that there are problems now, there are problems that need to be fixed now, and we’re trying to ramp up that process, which takes forever with the state.

Just like Malissa said, with these wetlands projects, working with the Department of Water Resources and all these different things, it is so bureaucratic—I won’t lie about that, it’s nuts—but we need the funding for it, so we’ll keep continuing to push for the funding, we’ll keep continuing to work to help mitigate any negative things that might happen to the humans around the area, whether it be the south, the west, the east, the north, and the birds that utilize that. I think there’s been a complete study done, and a lot of people like Chris who’s going to be talking today, they don’t know when we hit that critical point, and that’s the big worry. So just getting things done now is something that we need to do. You’re saying we’ve got to look long term too, and I understand, but also, this is dead if we don’t push forward with what’s going on now as well. That’s been kind of the mantra, that you push forward with this plan and at the same time, concurrently, get something for this longer-term development.

So that’s the Salton Sea Authority’s view of it. There are a lot of the different member agencies, and we do have some that are unhappy, and you know from the perspective of working with the Salton Sea Authority, all of them are not always going to be happy all the time. I don’t ever think that will be the case, because they just historically have not been agencies that have worked the best together—is the most polite way to put it. So it’s also keeping them on board, and keeping our stakeholders on board, because we do have that huge asset of how many stakeholders we have, it’s just how we leverage them. And that’s one thing that is missing. I think that’s why, when I came on this project, this message—this ten year plan project—is at least a message. And before you had nothing, and I don’t know where you go from there. You go down this path where you see dots, and you know, we’re going to keep working so that that doesn’t happen.


CJLPP: This has been a really great discussion, covering a lot of depth. To close out, could each of you tell briefly the story of how you got involved with the Salton Sea, and then what advice do you have for students and others who are looking to pursue your areas of work?


McKeith: I was the governor’s appoint to the Colorado River Board of California in 1997. Between 1997 and 2002, we negotiated the quantification settlement agreement, which was the historic transfer of water from Imperial to San Diego. During that five-year period, the water agencies made every effort to ignore, avoid, and never talk about the Salton Sea, and at last minute in 2001, the environmental community—Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife, Federation of Audubon—managed to get the issue to be front and center. And that led to this commitment on the part of the state of California, that if you approve the water transfer to help the state of California get into compliance with the Colorado River obligations, then the state would come up with a long-term restoration plan in 15 years. I didn’t believe that, I represented agricultural property interests along the sea who sued against the QSA saying the state’s obligation was unconstitutional because it was unfunded. We prevailed in the trial court, it set aside the QSA, got reversed on appeal, and we are where we are now.

Just so you also know, the QSA also involved the concrete lining of the All-American canal, the canal between Mexico and the United States, which reduced the flow of groundwater into Mexico by about a hundred thousand acre-feet a year. And, ironically, that has resulted in less water flowing back from Mexico to the Salton Sea, through the new river, because the water in the new river flows from Mexico back into the United States into the sea. So the sea has actually suffered more because everyone was so insistent on lining the canal. And we did have an injunction on the 9th circuit on that, only to have Congress and Harry Reed pass a bill to take jurisdiction away from the courts so that the canal would be lined. So that’s how critical this water transfer was. It was so critical that all of our senators voted to have it be that that litigation was stopped so that the water transfer would go forward. So the political will to transfer that water is extreme. The only thing is that there isn’t the political will to solve the consequences of that transfer. That’s my experience.

What should students do? Choose an easier project! (laughs). You know, honestly, I think it is very difficult when you are working on large public policy issues like this. It takes a lot of perseverance and the likelihood of prevailing because of the disproportionate wealth of the people involved is small. I think that there is a lot of value for students to decide to work in the communities impacted by the waters impacted by the water transfer, some of the communities that Phil mentioned which are experiencing environmental justice issues. You know there are those kind of efforts that actually directly affect people’s lives on an immediate basis, and sometimes that can be a lot more rewarding than, you know, the tilting at the windows, even though I’ve always thought it’s important to make a record of what really happened and hold the government accountable to what the government agrees to. I think it’s critical. And they did agree. California agreed. Whether or not anyone could ever enforce it is another story, but they would not have gotten the water from Imperial if they had not agreed to restore the sea.


Johnson: I started in an internship with Riverside EDA, which is the Economic Development Agency under Phil Rosentrater. He is the executive on loan from Riverside County to the Salton Sea Authority, and he had me start working on these projects. One thing led to another, the Assistant Executive Director position became available, I got it, and now I work on this every day, every minute. My advice to students? I think you look at the age groups working on the sea, and there’s this huge succession gap. And I think of it from the perspective of, if you want to get involved, there needs to be more youth involved to carry this forward, because like she said, this is going to be a long, long-term plan.


CJLPP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. We appreciate your time and expertise.


[i] Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency

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