Funder Collective Pushes for a Stronger Salton Sea Restoration Effort

A federal and state partnership is taking steps to deal with a looming environmental disaster at the Salton Sea, while funders put a $10 million incentive on the table to get it right.

The Salton Sea has been kind of an elephant in the room for Southern California, in that people know it’s there and it's deteriorating, but leaders haven’t stepped up to deal with it sufficiently. 

Specifically, the huge, shallow, saline lake is drying up and leaving degraded wildlife habitats and hazardous blowing dust in its footprint. The problems of the Salton Sea are closely tied to regional water scarcity, agriculture, climate, wildlife and the local economy, and the consequences of doing nothing could translate to a cost of $70 billion. 

The concerns have escalated to the point that the federal government is now committing funds and partnering with the state to confront the problem. And a relatively new collective of American water funders is backing up the effort, offering $10 million in potential funding if decision makers will approach the problem in a comprehensive way. 


As part of President Obama’s growing suite of final-year environmental commitments, the federal government allocated $30 million to a state-federal partnership to curb deterioration in the Salton Sea.

California’s largest lake has no outlet and is sustained largely by farm runoff, so as irrigation flows have declined, its waters have been evaporating and becoming even saltier and more oxygen deprived. Things are expected to worsen for the lake, as more water is set to be transferred from the region to nearby cities, and Colorado River negotiations will likely mean cutbacks in water flows. As the Salton Sea shrinks, chemical-laced dust kicks up and pollutes the region’s air, fish die off, birds lose a migratory stopping point, and the local economy takes a hit. There’s been a lot of frustration among locals, environmentalists and public health advocates that not enough has been done to deal with the problem, which has been in the making for decades.

It's a complex issue with high stakes, prompting a coalition of foundations known as the Water Funder Initiative to prioritize the restoration, and use the promise of supplementary funds to add a layer of accountability to the effort. 

It’s an interesting arrangement, in which the initiative’s Lower Colorado working group—made up of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Water Foundation—intends to give a target of $10 million, but contingent on a few requirements

The conditions include the development of a plan that addresses public health and social and environmental justice, in addition to habitat management and restoration of a set number of acres. It also requires the plan to coordinate with regional drought contingency plans. And perhaps most interesting, the initiative is calling for efforts to develop the surrounding valley’s renewable energy resources to reduce emissions and offer a boost to the local economy. Part of the federal commitment involves exploring the region’s geothermal renewable energy resources.

When the Water Funder Initiative formed nearly two years ago, a big part of what it set out to do was use the power of aligned foundations to shape overdue efforts in the space of water quality and scarcity in the U.S. That includes not just providing funds, but shining a light on issues and leveraging other funds. 

You can see that in action in the Salton Sea partnership. The initiative emphasizes the depth and breadth of issues baked into what might seem like one beleaguered ecosystem, and uses its potential support as a way to push decision-makers to address not just the lake, but the systemic problems that plague it.