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The Salton Sea can be seen from an overlook at Red Hill Bay on the southern end of the sea. The Imperial Irrigation District has completed the first phase of a long-delayed air-quality improvement project at Red Hill Bay that involved digging a series of furrows into the playa to reduce wind speed across the dry lakebed. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CONTROLLED THERMAL RESOURCES

IID Breaks Ground on Red Hill Bay Project

Litigation Between Air Pollution District and IID Over Abatement Order is Pending

SALTON SEA — Imperial Irrigation District has completed the first phase of a long-delayed air-quality improvement project at Red Hill Bay on southern edge of the Salton Sea.

IID announced on Thursday, Oct. 28, it finished digging a series of furrows into the playa at Red Hill Bay in order to reduce wind speed across the dry lakebed, which should reduce dust emissions by up to 90 percent.

The technique is deceptively simple. Each set of furrows is about 30 feet wide. Particles carried by the wind, which blows across Red Hill Bay from west to east, will get trapped in the furrows, which run north to south, perpendicular to the wind.

IID plans to install irrigation infrastructure and to plant vegetation in the spaces between the furrows in phases two and three of the project.

The district is moving forward with the so-called “best available control measure” project as it is embroiled in a legal battle with the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District over Red Hill Bay.

These long narrow ditches created by Imperial Irrigation District will decrease wind velocity on the dry lakebed and trap soil and dust particles. In future phases, the spaces between furrows will be filled with vegetation and irrigation infrastructure. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IID

Red Hill Bay was a prime bird-watching location before the Salton Sea began receding. Fine silt from the lakebed gets airborne, exacerbating respiratory ailments. Asthma rates in Imperial County are higher than the state average.

The Red Hill Bay project is a joint effort between the IID and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is aimed at creating hundreds of acres of shallow marine wetlands to provide aquatic bird habitat and reduce airborne dust from playa exposed due to a shrinking Salton Sea. The wetlands created by the Red Hill Bay project will help support the habitat goals at the Salton Sea as well as support backbone infrastructure at the sea.

A photo of the emissive playa (exposed lakebed) at Red Hill Bay before the Imperial Irrigation District started it air-quality project. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IID

The project broke ground in 2015 but stalled due to funding issues.

The Imperial County Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board on April 16 voted 4-0 to issue an order of abatement against the IID over the Red Hill Bay Project site, alleging that the district failed to control air-quality emissions at the project site on a few instances during the summer of 2020.

An order for abatement is an enforcement action that requires an owner or operator who is out of compliance to take specific action to get back into compliance with air district rules.

The APCD contends IID has been an irresponsible landowner, while IID officials say the air district was too quick to push forward with notices of violation, and that the APCD is overstepping its job.

“It became apparent in our ongoing discussions with APCD that they weren’t simply wanting a (best-available control measures) project on site, which IID intends to implement,” IID Water Department Manager Tina Shields said at the Jan. 29 APCD hearing. (But) “that they wanted to force IID to build the Red Hill Bay project envisioned by Fish and Wildlife Service. So, it was beyond simply addressing air-quality issues.

“That’s a challenge for IID,” she continued. “We’re not a resource agency. A saline habitat project has a lot of complexities and operating it in perpetuity is a challenge for an irrigation and drainage district. We’re really focused on securing water supplies for this community and for agriculture.”

“This is an alternative project to the APCD mandate that would resolve air-quality issues,” IID Division 2 Director JB Hamby told the Calexico Chronicle on Friday, Oct. 29.

The project can be turned into a shallow water habitat later on, Hamby added.

Litigation is ongoing, but IID and APCD representatives are in talks to resolve the matter out of court.

Exposed playa, or lakebed, at Red Hill Bay at the southern end of the Salton Sea is shown in this 2008 photo. | COURTESY IMAGE