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Mar 16, 6:38 PM EDT

California: $400 million plan to slow largest lake shrinkage


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AP Photo/Gregory Bull

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- California Gov. Jerry Brown's administration on Thursday proposed spending nearly $400 million over 10 years to slow the shrinking of the state's largest lake just as it is expected to evaporate an accelerated pace.

The plan involves building ponds on the northern and southern ends of the Salton Sea, a salty, desert lake that has suffered a string of environmental setbacks since the late 1970s. During its heyday of international speed boat races, it drew more visitors than Yosemite National Park and celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys.

The proposal comes at a critical time for the lake about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles because San Diego's regional water agency will soon stop sending water to help preserve the lake. San Diego agreed in 2003 to contribute water through 2017 under a landmark deal to buy Colorado River water from the Imperial Valley, which includes the lake.

The $383-million proposal ran into immediate questions over who will pay for it. The state has set aside $80 million under a voter-approved water bond measure, leaving a shortfall of $300 million.

The lake is often called "The Accidental Sea" because it was created in 1905 when the Colorado River breached a dike and two years of flooding filled a sizzling basin that today is about 35 miles long, 15 miles wide and only 50 feet deep.

The lake, which has no outlet, would have quickly evaporated if farmers hadn't settled California's southeastern corner. The Imperial Valley provides the U.S. with much of its winter vegetables on farms that feed off the Colorado River and drain into the Salton Sea.

The 2003 agreement to wean California's dependence on the drought-stricken river called for San Diego to buy large amounts of Imperial Valley water. The San Diego County Water Authority and other local agencies agreed to deliver water to the Salton Sea for 15 years while the state developed a long-term fix.

The Brown administration said the U.S. Agriculture Department recently committed $7.5 million to preserve the lake and identified federal, state and local governments and philanthropic groups as potential contributors.

Even fully funded, the plan wouldn't cover newly exposed lakebed, which may cause respiratory problems for residents who breathe the dust and erode a key habitat for hundreds of species of birds.

Projects outlined in the 26-page plan released by the California's Natural Resources Agency would cover 29,800 acres of the 48,300 acres expected to dry up by 2028 if nothing were done.

The Sierra Club said the plan addressed many of its short-term concerns such as potential funding sources and specific projects to protect air quality and wildlife habitat. It said the lack of secured funding required state leaders to work together to avoid a "human health, ecological and economic disaster."

"The 10-year plan is a real step forward for the state of California - and one that could not come soon enough with sharp declines in water to the Salton Sea coming in less than 10 months," said Sarah Friedman, senior representative of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which manages the Imperial Valley's water, asked the State Water Resources Control Board on Thursday to hold hearings that could lead to binding measures to preserve the lake.

Kevin Kelley, the district's general manager, wrote that the plan "constitutes substantial progress" and that he was encouraged by its specific milestones and cost estimates. But he said State Water Resources Control Board's regulatory intervention and oversight was needed to ensure the lake's future after Brown leaves office in 2018.

"We recognize that the Brown administration has limited time left during its tenure and that it cannot bind its successors' hands," he wrote.

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