Beyond the Bay: Sierra Club Sues to Stop City by the Salton Sea

Rachael Myrow here, host of The California Report, with an a.m. post from beyond the Bay Area Bubble…

It’s one of the more pungent parts of California. On the back side of the state’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego, there’s a giant sink hole full of tilapia known as the Salton Sea. Despite its salinity and pollution (a combination of agricultural runoff and epic flooding), the sea also provides a habitat for many migratory birds passing through California.

Back in the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a desert playground for Metro LA, and real estate developers imagined something on the order of Palm Springs SE. But like the Sea itself, those dreams have waxed and waned over the years.

If you haven’t seen “Plagues & Pleasures,” narrated by John Waters, put that on your list of Docs to Watch. pronto. This is a place that inspires filmmakers and scientists and people prone to fixing things that appear to be broken. (We had a story on the scientific side of the sea on the California Report a few years back.)

This week, we hear from Courthouse News Service that environmentalists are suing to stop a ginormous development proposed for the crusty northeastern shoreline of the Salton Sea. Specifically, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity are suing the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the developer, Black Emerald Properties, in Superior Court, over a 4,918-acre project that would include up to 16,655 dwelling units and 5 million square feet of commercial space.

“As county planners acknowledged, the project and its 40,000 or more residents would form an entirely new town, which would be constructed between the failing Salton Sea on the east and the sensitive wilderness lands of Anza Borrego State Park and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument on the west,” the complaint states… “This massive influx of people, and the resulting traffic, will lead to an increase in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a region that already had some of the nation’s highest air pollution levels. It will also catalyze more growth and cause significant new impacts on nearby parks, biological resources and cultural resources.”

The plaintiffs claim “Travertine Point,” and the county’s approval of it in February, and its 3,000-page environmental impact report (excluding appendices), violated both the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Code of Regulations. But they also find the economics of the proposal “baffling.” Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News “they basically want to build a new town in the middle of nowhere.”

Developers naturally disagree, arguing the eastern side of the Coachella Valley is already popular with tourists and set to become more so once the economy turns around (maybe in the next 30 or so years.) Whatever your thoughts about the Salton Sea, it’s saline hold on the human imagination is undeniable.

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Rachael Myrow

From KQED’s Bureau in San Jose, Rachael Myrow’s mandate is to cover politics, economics, technology and culture in a region that stretches from Burlingame to Edenvale to Fremont. She also covers food and blogs for Bay Area Bites. Her posting as Silicon Valley Correspondent follows more than seven years as the daily host of KQED's California Report, broadcast on NPR affiliates throughout the state. She continues to guest host The California Report Magazine and Forum, and files as a freelancer for NPR and PRI’s The World. Before KQED, she worked for Marketplace and KPCC in Los Angeles.

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