The State of California recently released a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that studied eight alternative plans to restore the environmental health of the Salton Sea, the largest lake in the state. One of the plans that was included in the report is called the Concentric Lakes Alternative, submitted by the Imperial Group, made up of Imperial Valley agricultural landowners and farmers.

Concerned about the viability of other proposals being considered for restoration of the Salton Sea, the Imperial Group initiated and participated in the development of the Concentric Lakes Alternative.

Initially called the Cascade Alternative, it has been renamed the "Concentric Lakes Plan" and it is one of eight possible solutions to the environmental problems that plague the lake. All of the alternatives have been studied and are described in a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) issued last week by the California Resources Agency. Go to: http://www.saltonsea.water.ca.gov/PEIR/draft/
Chapter_3_Description_of_Program_Alternatives.pdf, see bottom of page 46, Alternative 4- Concentric Lakes.

While the EIR covers many issues relating to the lake, the document did not indicate any preference regarding which alternative was favored over the others.

The Salton Sea, measuring approximately 35 miles by 15 miles, was created in 1905 when a Colorado River dike was breeched and water began filling a natural depression, the Salton Sink. The lake is bordered by Imperial County and Riverside County, and covers an estimated 375 square miles.

The lake has served as an important element of the Pacific Flyway, providing water, food and a resting place for millions of migrating birds. That has been impeded by concentrations of salt which have resulted in a substantially reduced fish population.

Efforts to restore the lake's environmental health have been considered for several years, and a number of solutions have been proposed. But these plans have required the commitment of billions of dollars for implementation. Realizing that such plans would simply not be financially feasible, the agricultural landowners -- who had formed an informal organization called The Imperial Group, -- began exploring other alternatives to restore the environmental health of the lake.

The Imperial Group brought together prominent consultants who had dealt with large-scale, water-based environmental issues around the world. After extensive study, they developed what is now called the Concentric Lakes Plan.

The plan would deal with the environmental issues, and restore the lake's role in the Pacific Flyway. It would support the continuation of extensive agriculture adjacent to the lake.

The Concentric Lakes Alternative would accomplish this at a far lower cost than the other alternatives. In addition, The Imperial Group is exploring funding alternatives that are not reliant on traditional bond financing.

The Concentric Lakes plan calls for a series of circular lakes to be developed. Saline content would be separated from the main body of the lakes and contained in isolated brine ponds where they can be managed.

Mike Morgan, a member of The Imperial Group explains, "The Concentric Lakes plan uses technology that's been successfully applied in similar situations around the world. We're confident that this approach will deal with the environmental and hydrological problems currently facing the Salton Sea."

Restoration of the lake is actively being pursued because the lake's environmental condition has a number of substantial impacts. Bird and fish habitats are a major concern. It also affects microclimates which have impacts on the use of land for agriculture.

Environmental groups support the Concentric Lakes Plan because it has been designed specifically to deal with issues related to the natural environment.

Commenting on the plan, Morgan said, “We're approaching this in a collaborative way with open dialog among the concerned parties. The Concentric Lakes Plan would result in enhanced bird-nesting sites, the establishment of wetlands, and the creation of wildlife corridors to support species that are presently struggling to exist in and around the Salton Sea.”

Julia Levin, state policy director of Audubon California, says, "None of the plans do a complete job of dealing with the many environmental issues. But the Concentric Lakes Alternative presents a good starting point for restoration. With some additions and modifications, it would protect public health, the environment and the local economy.”

For the agricultural landowners, feasibility is a key factor. "This is a workable plan," says Morgan. "The government doesn't have the resources to implement the other plans. Our approach is doable."

Jim Kelley, retired dean, College of Science and Engineering, California State University, San Francisco agrees. “The Concentric Lakes Alternative works best environmentally, and is the only one that is economically viable. It is also the safest seismically. The Salton Sea trough is the most likely site for a major earthquake in the near future on the entire San Andreas system.”

Kelley adds, “The draft EIR gives almost no attention to the seismic advantages of the Concentric Lakes Alternative.”

Meanwhile, members of the Imperial Group and their consultants continue to meet with stakeholders to discuss the plan and explain its benefits.

Morgan explains, "Our goal is to have the Concentric Lakes Plan designated as the preferred alternative. That will allow us to complete the engineering and begin implementation of the plan." He says, "The sooner we can get started on this, the sooner the Salton Sea can be restored. And that'll benefit everyone in the Imperial Valley."

After a public-comment period (which ends on Jan. 16, 2007), the alternatives will be studied further and a preferred alternative will be selected.