Species Conservation Habitat (SCH)
The First Large Salton Sea Habitat Restoration Project
After 17 years of empty promises and very little built on the ground at the Salton Sea, there is now one substantial State funded Salton Sea project well underway. The project site is located where the New River fans out and flows into the Salton Sea. This site was identified about fifteen years ago for a smaller “Early Start Habitat” project. The project concept expanded to well over 3,000 acres with three New River delta site alternatives described in an Environmental Impact Report filed in 2013 and a new name, the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project. The project plan was further expanded to 4,100 acres before it broke ground in early 2021.
The Species Conservation Habitat Project is being built on exposed lakebed (referred to as playa) uncovered by the shrinking Salton Sea. The shrinkage of the Salton Sea is a direct result of transfers of Colorado River water away from California’s Imperial Valley, where it irrigated farms, then drained to the Salton Sea, to urban areas in San Diego, the Los Angeles region, and Riverside County. This agricultural to urban transfer of water is key element of Statewide water policy, but it severely impacts desert areas like the Imperial Valley that give up water to urban coastal areas.
Playa exposed on the southwest shore of the Salton Sea at the New River delta is composed mostly of fine sediments, ranging from clay to sand. A century of agriculture and industry has deposited pesticide residues and some heavy metals and organic toxins in the sediment. Early springtime in the Imperial Valley typically comes with high winds. The winds blow the fine sediments and associated chemicals up into dust storms that spread into surrounding farm fields and communities near the Salton Sea and beyond. One benefit of the Species Conservation Habitat Project will be to keep four thousand acres of potential dust emitting playa covered by water in aquatic habitat ponds so that it does not blow onto crops and communities.
The most direct benefit of the Species Conservation Habitat (SCH) Project will be to create marine salinity aquatic habitat to replace a small portion of the aquatic habitat lost to a shrinking Salton Sea that is becoming too concentrated with salt to support the millions of fish and thousands of large water birds that it sustained several years ago. The SCH will consist of several large ponds with managed marine range salinity (20 to 40 parts per thousand total dissolved solids) that will be designed to support fish and both nesting and foraging birds. Nesting islands will be provided in several ponds for birds to raise their young free of terrestrial predators. The SCH ponds will have a range of depth from quite shallow to more than six feet deep to support both shorebirds and diving birds with some deep channels for fish to escape all being eaten and to help manage water temperature. The ponds will support fish like the endangered desert pupfish and/or tilapia that once thrived in the Salton Sea. Attracted by the fish and suitable aquatic habitat will be large birds like pelicans and osprey, cormorants, small diving birds like eared grebes, and a wide range of shorebirds.
Water for the ponds will be a mix of brackish water diverted from the New River and highly salty water pumped up from the Salton Sea. The amount of each water source will be managed to sustain a target salinity range suitable for the fish and birds that previously thrived in the Salton Sea. Contaminants in the New River like pesticides and selenium will have to be monitored in the SCH ponds and carefully managed along with critical water quality parameters like salinity and dissolved oxygen to sustain a habitable and healthy environment.
Additional benefit of the SCH can be recreational opportunities such as hiking trails, picnic areas, birdwatching, and possibly some fishing. Community representatives need to reach out to the State to request the kind of community access and recreational opportunities people want.
View from a road inside SCH
Some of the construction equipment in use, a tractor and a scraper.