Salton Sea residents say California legislators broke funding promises

SALTON SEA, Calif. (KGTV) - Four years ago a 10News crew traveled to Bombay Beach on the eastern side of the Salton Sea. This once thriving resort community is littered with abandoned homes and some of the 200 plus residents who still live there struggle to get out. People like the man who would only identify himself as “Bucky.”

"We own two houses. We can't replace what we have into them,” says Bucky.  “Basically we're stuck. Me and my wife talked about it a couple of weeks ago I said, 'You know we're gonna die here.'"

Bucky is like so many who call the Salton Sea home. They feel forgotten, hopeless, and helpless. In 2003 California Legislators promised to restore the dying sea and its vital ecosystem with almost $9-billion. But that promise, like so many others since, was broken to the people who live here.

But two years ago Governor Jerry Brown allocated a mere $80-million in an attempt to avoid an enormous environmental disaster. That may seem like a lot of money, but as Senator Ben Hueso, whose district encompasses the Salton Sea explains, “$80-million is a drop in the bucket” for a problem of this size.        

So, four years later our 10News crew decided to return to the Salton Sea to see how residents who live there are managing their lives and what that $80-million is being used for. We were surprised to find not much has changed. In fact, very little money has been spent, the situation is rapidly getting worse, and the people who live there fear more broken promises.

There is no denying the Salton Sea is disappearing.

"This is the water line previously,” says Tony May who owns several houses near the shoreline in Salton City.

May points to the back edge of his yard and down to a dusty beach below where water from the Salton Sea used to lap up on his property.

“It was right here as of 1993,” explains May smiling remembering a time when the property was right on the water.

Today the water line is no less than 300 yards away and separated by a dusty playa scattered with dead fish and a foul-smelling body of water that once was a prime resort for fishing and waterskiing.  And, it's only getting worse. The sea is shrinking more rapidly now that flows from the Colorado River were officially cut off at the beginning of 2018. Within years thousands of acres of seabed, like that behind Tony May’s home will be exposed. The waterfront property is now only a dream to May, the boat docks are entirely useless, and 300 yards of seabed that used to be 10 feet underwater, are now just a dusty beach. Playa that according to the Salton Sea Authority contains toxic chemicals like selenium, arsenic, and DDT. Tony and many others who live and work here, claim the dust from that dry beach is what's causing their respiratory issues.

"They can't breathe anymore, they're getting asthma,” says May.  “They never had asthma. I talk to the employees in town and they say the more that sea dries out the more it effects our health."

The Salton Sea will never return to its riviera prime. The concern now is not so much saving the sea, but instead averting disaster by creating wetlands to control the dust storms.

“Because it's a major problem. It's a very big problem," says Senator Ben Hueso from California’s 40th District and home to the Salton Sea.

Senator Hueso has been fighting an uphill battle for this region for almost a decade.

"What is going to happen should this sea begin to dry up? We're going to see that exacerbate," says Hueso. "Right now Imperial County has cities with the poorest air quality in the country. Highest asthma rates in the country. The price tag of doing nothing to fix the Salton Sea is going to be costlier than actually putting some resource into fixing it."

The price tag has always been a problem for the Salton Sea dating back 15 years. State officials promised to restore the Sea in 2003 with $8.9-billion. That promise, like many others for this region, was broken.

In 2016 a mere $80 million was allotted by Governor Brown in his budget, with promises of millions more to come. $20-million of that money would go towards staff and consultants to fix the Salton Sea. The remaining $60-million would go to actual construction. But two years later only $3 million has been spent on staff and consultants according to Bruce Wilcox who is Assistant Secretary and an Ecologist with the Salton Sea Policy. Not a dime has been spent on construction of wetlands to mitigate the blowing dust. 

"This is the old marina.  And probably this is one of the most visually enticing places to see how far the water has receded," says Frank Ruiz with Audobon California looking over a desolate landscape that was once the thriving Salton City Marina.

Ruiz’ job is to monitor the migratory birds who travel through the Salton Sea along the Pacific Flyway which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia at the southernmost tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. 

"We should not wait until the crisis is on top of us. Because then the cost of inaction will be way too high,” adds Ruiz.

A study conducted by the Pacific Institute estimates the cost of doing nothing with the Salton Sea could reach as little as $30-billion if nothing is done and possibly as much as $70-billion. Ruiz has watched the sea recede for years and says he fears the growth of respiratory issues, not just for those who live in this region but eventually as far away as San Diego. He's also witnessed a massive decline of migratory birds, which play a huge role in the ecology of the region.

"I think birds and wildlife are good indicators of how good or how bad your environment is. If the birds go, if the wildlife go, we will go next."

If that’s true, as Senator Hueso mentioned, that $80-million absolutely will be a drop in the bucket.

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