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Does Riverside County's Salton Sea Plan Go Far Enough To Matter?


Riverside County has a new plan for the Salton Sea - one it says could bring back tourism and generate a billion dollars in tax revenue.  KVCR's Benjamin Purper has more.

In 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan signed a bill addressing the Salton Sea’s rising salinity levels – fifty years later, the sea is saltier than ever. And it’s shrinking, exposing toxic dust to surrounding communities in Riverside and Imperial Counties.

But Riverside County has a plan to restore its portion of the sea.

“All of the things that people used to do, back in the 50’s and 60’s, could be done again. There would be fish again, there would be duck hunting again, there would be a lot of those opportunities that used to exist, not to mention the fact that it would solve both the dust control issue and the habitat and wildlife issues,” says Paul Quill of the Salton Sea Action Committee.

The committee supports a plan to create a new and improved lake on the northern edge of the sea that could support boating, fishing, and other recreational activities.

“The North Lake is part of a greater solution that we believe is the best and most cost-effective interim solution for the Salton Sea.”

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted in October to create an enhanced infrastructure finance district, or EIFD, to fund construction of the lake. Basically, the county expects that the North Lake will attract tourism and development to the area. That increased tax base will then pay for the construction of the lake issued through bonds.

However, not everyone is on board with the new plan. Mark Johnson has worked in the water utility industry for 40 years, and writes a blog about water issues in the Coachella Valley.

“For the tax base to grow there’s got to be some improvement. No developer is going to go in there and spend a whole bunch of money until the Salton Sea is fixed, so they’ve got the cart before the horse on that one," Johnson says. 

And Johnson says, the North Lake would only cover a small portion of the Salton Sea’s shoreline, or playa – the rest would still be an issue.

“So now the Salton Sea management program has estimated that there’s going to be 48,000 acres of exposed playa by 2030 or something like that. 48,000 acres! And this is only going to cover 880 acres. So that’s like only 2% of the exposed playa that’s going to be covered by this project that’s supposed to cost 400 million dollars. So I think that it’s like a golden watering can trying to put out a huge forest fire.”

The Sea-To-Sea Option 

Johnson is pushing for a different to plan to save the sea – something called the Sea-to-Sea project. That plan would bring in ocean water to balance out the shrinking sea.

“Bringing in ocean water and desalinating it once it gets to the Salton Sea could be a viable alternative water supply. Not only solving the Salton Sea environmental problem but also an alternative water supply for the region.”

But Paul Quill says the Sea-to-Sea option isn’t necessarily out of the picture.

“The sea-to-sea option is not precluded by what we’re planning on doing, what we would like to see done. And the North Lake, again, is strictly a piece of the ultimate puzzle.”

Quill says the North Lake plan isn’t enough on its own. It’s just the local piece of the puzzle - in order to save the sea, the state and federal government are also going to have to step in.

“Our position has been, since 2012, that if we locally, in other words the two counties, the local residents are willing to push for property tax increment financing locally, that doesn’t take the state and the federal government off the hook. It simply shows them that we’re willing to put our skin in the game and they need to now come up alongside of us and match that.”

The Perimeter Lake

Paul Quill says that the county doesn't have the cart before the horse. He says that the enhanced infrastructure financing district would help fund construction of the perimeter lake - a recreational quality lake that would attract tourism and investment.

"Once formed, the EIFD would take a small percentage of future property taxes from all of the properties within the District. The proven assumption is that a recreational quality lake, such as the perimeter lake is proposed to be, would substantially increase assessed values of properties within the District by virtue of development, tourism, reduced environmental impacts and economic development certainty. Bonds or other forms of gap financing would pay for the infrastructure necessary to build the perimeter lake, estimated at approximately two billion dollars. Those gap financing instruments would be paid back, with interest, from the proceeds of the future increase in assessed values."

Quill explains that "in California under Prop 13 the base property tax without additional assessments is 1% of the assessed value of the property. The legislation allows the local agencies to create the district and designate a portion of that property tax for a specific infrastructure purpose. Once formed, the EIFD can utilize the tax increment as assessed values increase within the District. The EIFD can only use the increment of the increase in the assessed values such that the basis for the EIFD is the assessed value at the time the District is formed." 

"In the case of the regions around the Salton Sea the present assessed values are very low. After development, assessed values can skyrocket from five or ten thousand dollars per acre to well over one million dollars per acre. The tax increment would be taken from that increased value over the basis."

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