WASHINGTON – California finds itself in an awkward position in Congress: hands outstretched for two major water projects but unsure whether it will get enough money even for one.
The result is a competition that at first looks like an unfair fight between CalFed, the program to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, and the much-maligned Salton Sea.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., champions the delta, which provides drinking water for two-thirds of the state and irrigation water for Central Valley crops. Feinstein is trying to get $1.6 billion for the delta, while a similar bill in the House of Representatives would provide $3 billion.
The biggest name attached to the Salton Sea — the salty, often malodorous desert lake southeast of Palm Springs — is the late Sonny Bono, who represented the area in Congress. The sea’s wildlife refuge bears his name.
“The Salton Sea can gladly wait in most people’s minds,” said Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, Bono’s widow and successor in Congress.
The sea, already 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, probably will need at least $1 billion to keep it from getting too salty to support its fish and the birds that feed on them. The sea has become one of the West Coast’s most important stops for migratory birds, which flock there by the tens of thousands each year.
The sea gets almost all its water from agricultural runoff and a fetid river that flows from Mexico. At 228 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea has no drainage. What flows in, stays in.
But the sea is commanding new attention because it holds the key to a complicated transfer of water from Imperial County agriculture to San Diego for drinking water.
That transfer is a key component in California’s plan to reduce its take of Colorado River water by 15 percent by 2016. Six other western states, their populations growing rapidly, want their fair share of river water.
The state has until Dec. 31 to show it is on track to meet that goal or risk an immediate cutback that would be borne entirely by Southern California homes and businesses.
The Salton Sea’s connection to the water transfer is that it would shrink and get saltier faster because there would be less farm runoff, according to one plan under consideration.
That, in turn, would threaten some of the hundreds of species of birds that make the sea an important stopping point in seasonal migration. Bono and others also fear that a smaller sea would expose miles of lake bed and kick up dust storms that would have a harmful effect on air quality.
No all-encompassing plan has been proposed to restore the sea, a popular resort until the early 1960s, although Interior Department officials are preparing one.
CalFed, on the other hand, is a complete plan to restore the fragile delta and ensure reliable water supplies to accommodate the state’s expected growth.
Still, neither the House nor Senate has passed a CalFed bill. It will be after Labor Day before either house takes it up again.
Critics of CalFed and the Salton Sea restoration complain that the federal government is bearing too much of the cost.
“California is asking the federal taxpayer once again to serve as a safety net,” said Aileen Roder, who follows California water projects for the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The group bills itself as a watchdog against profligate spending.
But the convergence of these projects offers an advantage, said Bill Snape of Defenders of Wildlife.
“Whether they like it or not, members of Congress are being forced to take a fairly comprehensive look at California water,” Snape said, after testifying to a congressional panel about the Salton Sea and the ramifications of the California water transfer.
California lawmakers generally are reluctant to describe the two projects as being in competition, although Feinstein has made clear that CalFed is her top priority and that Salton Sea proponents should scale back their plans because Congress is unlikely to come up with $1 billion or more.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, chief sponsor of the CalFed bill in the House, said he tells colleagues from other states, particularly in the West, that they benefit from helping California.
“Anything that makes California less dependent on the Colorado River, for example, should be a reason for them to want California to succeed,” Calvert said.