By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

RIVERSIDE >> Experts speaking at UC Riverside on Monday say the problem with a shrinking Salton Sea was identified some 50 years ago but the remoteness of the site has partially kept it off the fix agenda.

“Here we are at almost 2015 and the clock is ticking to 2017 and we have no consensus about what to do,” said Mark Matsumoto, a UCR professor of chemical and environmental engineering.

In two years a court order will kick in greatly accelerating the shrinking of the sea.

Gregor Yanega, an ornithologist and academic adviser to the UC Irvine Salton Sea Initiative, said the low population base of Imperial County and the remoteness of the site have made it a low priority in the state’s allocation of sparse resources.

Yanega and Matsumoto were among the speakers at a panel discussion about Salton Sea stainability held Monday at the campus’s Center for Ideas and Society.

Experts have said that not acting will be far more costly than fixing the problem.

A study by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute released in July said that the cost of doing nothing to reduce the shrinkage could range between $29 billion and $70 billion.

A $9 billion state plan to preserve and restore the Salton Sea has been on the back burner for years.

The Pacific Institute Study said that the costs of inaction over 30 years would result in adverse impacts to public health, property values, agricultural production, recreation revenue and the wildlife habitant, especially birds.

Yanega said he has concerns that elevated levels of selenium in small habitant-study areas being created on the edge of the Salton Sea will have harmful effects on bird reproduction rates.

This happened in the Central Valley during the 1980s in water with similar salinity issues, he said.

“Many, many birds will move from the Salton Sea,” Yanega said.

With the low water levels, coyotes and other predators have been able to reach cormorant nesting areas at the Salton Sea.

So they have moved elsewhere, he said.

It may be that 35 percent of the large fish-eating birds in the west will perish with the Salton Sea’s shrinking and the lake experience a die-off of tilapia due to rising saline levels, he said.

“I think people don’t want to see that happen, but how much are they willing to pay to prevent it?” Yanega said.

Officials at the Imperial Irrigation District, which own much of the lake bed, are proposing fees from the development of geothermal power from the Salton Sea be used to fund some of the preservation expenses.

But in an interview, Karen Douglas, a California Energy Commission commissioner said development of the sea’s massive geothermal potential faces many challenges, including how to carry that power to metro areas.

Another challenge is that geothermal power is constant, day and night.

The state is likely looking at a surplus of power during the day, when solar power plants are operating.

The operations of a geothermal plant may only add to that abundance during the day, but become valuable during the evening, when solar power shuts down, she said.

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