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1st major project to save Salton Sea breaks ground

Red Hill Bay Restoration Project will cover 420 acres of exposed shoreline with water

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SALTON CITY, Calif. - A major project is getting underway to control dust and help wildlife at the Salton Sea as it continues to shrink.

The $3.5 million dollar project is centered around Red Hill Bay Marina on the south side of the sea in Calipatria. 

If it works, it will be repeated in other areas around California's largest lake.  The goal, mitigate dangerous dust, and maintain a safe, inviting habitat for wildlife.

It's a small, but important first step to avoiding a potential environmental disaster.

With a scoop of a shovel, years of talking about saving the Salton Sea turns into action. Ground broke Thursday on the first large scale restoration project for the Salton Sea.  

"If we can pull this together and prove that we can do this and build habitat in the same areas they are accessing geothermal, that is a big plus for the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative," said California Natural Resources Agency assistant secretary Bruce Wilcox.   

Not long ago water covered Red Hill Bay's 420 acres. Two years from now, the hope is it will be covered again. 

"You'll see birds, you'll see people hiking around, possibly canoers out here paddling around," said Chris Schoneman, Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  

The Red Hill Bay project will create a shallow wetland by diverting Salton Sea water and AG run off from the Alamo River. 

"We will do that by building a series of berms, two or three large cells or ponds," said Wilcox.

Mindful of the drought, it's using water already slated for the sea.

"We are not taking water that would otherwise be somebody's potable water source or be something that would cause the golf courses to dry up some place," said Wilcox.

This project focuses on just a small portion of the 350 square mile dying sea, but it's success could prove an important first step to restoring all of it.

"There is a need to do that with a lot of areas, this area happens to be one of the more visible areas," said Wilcox. 

In it's current state, Red Hill Bay's dry lake bed contributes to the Coachella Valley's dust problem.

"That salt crust is bad for your health, it's bad for crops. It's an economic disaster all the way around, so that's one of the reasons for choosing this area too," said Wilcox. 

Once restored back to a wetland, no more dust.

"The more of these sort of projects that we can do it will reduce the dust problem," said Wilcox. 

The project will not only help reduce dust but also help once again attract wildlife and people.

"Get the wildlife get the people back here and it will be a complete turnaround, a successful turnaround," said Schoneman.

"I think it will be a pretty good future," said Wilcox. 

Wilcox said there are several more projects planned. "We need future funding to roll the rest of this project out. The short and medium term projects are probably a 10, 12, 15 year project. The short term stuff is in the next five years," said Wilcox.  

Dr. Raul Ruiz spoke on the House floor Thursday morning to celebrate the groundbreaking of the first large-scale Salton Sea restoration project at Red Hill Bay Marina.

The Red Hill Bay Project is the first major shovel-ready movement to begin addressing the adverse health, environmental and economic effects associated with the receding Salton Sea, according to a release from Dr. Ruiz' office.

News Channel 3 and CBS Local 2 were at the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning where dozens of dignitaries were on hand to announce the project.

"The Red Hill Bay Project is the first step in realizing my vision to combat the health threats, environmental crisis and adverse economic impacts of the receding sea by transforming this threat into an opportunity to prevent dust exposure and spur renewable energy and tourism," said Dr. Ruiz.

"This first large-scale groundbreaking project shows that if we work together, we can achieve results toward a bigger vision," Dr. Ruiz added.

Officials said the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project will cover 420 acres of exposed shoreline with water, and create geothermal energy access corridors and well-pads for future renewable energy development.

They anticipate the project model can be replicated to guide future restoration efforts as well.

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