Executive Summary for March 23rd

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including an update on Salton Sea projects, the impact of late-season storms and sustainability challenges faced by Phoenix.

Published on March 23, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Slow Going at the Salton Sea

How’s progress going on remediating the health and ecosystem impacts of California’s shrinking Salton Sea? Pretty slowly, according to a story published Wednesday by the Desert Sun.

The Salton Sea, a 350-square-mile saline lake in the southeastern corner of California, is expected to expose about 48,300 acres of dry lakebed over the next decade as reduced flows shrink the lake. The state has a plan to fend off some of the health and environmental consequences with an effort that includes building 30,000 acres of ponds, wetlands and other habitat and dust-suppression projects.

But a year after the state issued its plan, “less than 50 acres of wetlands have been built,” reports Ian James of the Desert Sun, which means the state is likely to miss its target of constructing 500 acres of habitat projects by the end of 2018.

The state has been focused on a “smaller but sustainable Salton Sea.” It was supposed to cost around $380 million, but, James reports, that number has already climbed to $410 million. The state has only $80 million in approved funds, but it could get another $200 million more if California votes to pass a bond measure on the June ballot.

Late-Season Storm Brings Hope, Fear

Heavy precipitation hitting California this week is bringing hope for a significant bump to a snowpack that’s still below average. But in fire-scarred communities, fear of mudslides has also returned.

An atmospheric river expected to last through Saturday could dump 4ft of snow in the Sierra Nevada. But it’s the 3–6in of rain expected in coastal communities and 10in in the mountains above them that has prompted evacuation orders and warnings of debris flows. The Los Angeles Times reported that 21,000 people have been ordered to evacuate Santa Barbara County.

In January, 21 people were killed in Montecito after heavy rains fell on hillsides recently burned in wildfires.

“Although there’s little potential for a once-in-200-year storm cell like the one in January that dumped half an inch of rain in just five minutes and triggered the deadly floods, this storm is worrisome because it will probably bring a long period of nonstop rain,” the Times reported.

Is Phoenix Sustainable?

A story in the Guardian this week took a close look at Phoenix, Arizona, and whether the growing city, now the fifth-largest in the country, will be limited by a lack of water.

“The area is still growing – and is dangerously overstretched, experts warn,” the Guardian reported. Rising temperatures and increasing stress on the city’s water sources, including the Colorado River, haven’t dampened plans for growth in the region. And that includes plans for 80,000 new homes in a “smart city” outside Phoenix, funded, in part, by Bill Gates.

A report last year found that climate change was already impacting the Colorado River, with higher temperatures reducing flows. But Arizona is not reliant on just the river – it has long used recycled water for nonpotable uses and recently became the first state to develop regulations to allow for the use of direct potable reuse of highly treated wastewater for drinking (although no programs are yet underway to deliver that water to customers).

The state also has its eye on desalinated brackish water or seawater (in a partnership with Mexico or California), but that’s still a ways down the road.

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