As California’s two largest inland bodies of water go, Lake Tahoe is the stereotypical beauty queen — classically stunning, endlessly photogenic, fragile. Frankly, quite chilly yet eternally inspiring to legions of admirers. The Salton Sea is the neighbor tucked away at the far end of the street and often forgotten. Stark, spare, somewhat homely, beloved by only a select and discriminating community of devotees. The result of an accident. Unkempt. Sometimes — let’s be honest here — a little smelly.
President Obama was at Lake Tahoe earlier this week at an annual conservation summit to discuss his environmental legacy and the decades-long efforts to preserve Tahoe. But almost in passing, he outlined a belated but welcome series of federal initiatives to rescue the rapidly shrinking desert lake more than 500 miles to the southeast.
Federal funding to support lake restoration, environmental projects and human health can’t come too soon. California leaders have committed themselves to ensuring that the exposed Salton Sea lake bed doesn’t become a source of noxious and toxic dust threatening the health of millions of people from the Mexico border to Los Angeles. But the state’s effort, too, has been belated, and the federal participation — spurred in large part by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer — now puts needed attention on a subject that for too long had effectively been ignored in both Sacramento and Washington.
Of special note is the apparent U.S. interest in the substantial but still sparsely developed geothermal resources at the southern end of the lake. The energy potential could be a key part of a grand bargain among water rights owners, governments and power companies that allows for preservation of a smaller Salton Sea serving millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway, plus, through a series of intertwined agreements, more efficient use of Colorado River water in the fields of the Imperial Valley and a more reliable water supply for San Diego.
Sacramento’s interest in seeing energy produced around the Salton Sea seemed to have abated in recent years as new technologies made solar power more affordable. But geothermal may be back on track with the federal government’s promise to consider purchasing the energy produced there.
The important thing to remember about the Salton Sea is that it, unlike the more famous (and yes, more beautiful) Tahoe to the north, is deeply interwoven into the state’s water, energy and food supplies. It is in a real sense a part of the Colorado River, which today has an even greater role in quenching the thirst of Southern Californians than the Sierra rivers that are part of the federal, state and L.A. water projects. As the supply of Northern California federal and state water comes under increasing threat from diminished snowfall, it is imperative that both Washington and Sacramento do their part to keep the people, the environment and the water of Salton Sea in good health.