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Carbon salinity project saves California crops

Flaming Gorge dam impounds water for irrigation, flood control and electric power generation, but it also concentrates salt. Less salt is coming from Carbon County as a result of the BOR's salinity project.

(Editors note: This is the first of three articles addressing the salinity problem in the Colorado River Basin and the government's response to controlling downstream salt load levels.)

Imagine yourself being a farmer in the Imperial Valley in southern California. For years you have grown lettuce prolifically with water piped to you from the Colorado River, from the All-American Canal that is diverted near Yuma, Ariz., 70 miles away.

One year however, as you start your lettuce, you notice that a lot of it either isn't germinating or it germinates and then dies. You start to lose 50 percent of your crop right off the bat and more even dies as time progresses. What is wrong? Why is this happening?

This was the scene on some farms beginning about the middle of the 20th century. After experimentation and study experts found the problem. It wasn't herbal diseases or some kind of bug. It was what was in the water. The water that came from that previously pure source suddenly had too much salt in it.

A river of salt

"In the mid 1970s salt concentrations ran toward the lower basin (states) and caused a lot of damage to crops," said Travis James of the Colorado Salinity Control Project on Monday night during a meeting with those from the agriculture industry at the Carbon Events Center.

At the same time industrial users of the same water began to see much faster deterioration of pipes and metal equipment exposed to the water. Building owners of apartments and even homeowners saw rapid rusting and destruction of their plumbing systems. The salt had affected them too.

"As the salinity concentration goes up, damage rises dramatically," said James.

The salt that had been in low concentrations (3-400 parts per million) had raised in places up to 800 ppm. The cause? Drainage from geologic salt feartures in places toward the northeast, a third of a continent away.

In the 1920s the Colorado River Compact was signed by seven states to achieve a balance in water use between the upper basin (Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico) and the lower basin (Arizona, Nevada and California). The upper basin states agreed that each years so many acre feet of water would be fed to the lower basin states for their agriculture, municipal and industrial use. Further, a treaty with Mexico also was negotiated to be sure that the river carried water to that county for their use in 1944 (Mexican Water Treaty). All seemed well, despite the fact that in drought years there was never enough water for anyone.

But the compact did not address a problem few knew much about at the time. Runoff from irrigation operations and reservoir storage was complicating the water picture. That complication came in the form of salt being driven from soils in upper basin areas into the Colorado Basin where it was suspended until it reached users in the lower basin.

In 1972 the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to require development of water quality standards for salinity in the Colorado River. Around that time basin states formed the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum to develop these standards including numeric salinity and a basin-wide plan of implementation for salinity control that EPA subsequently approved.

In 1974, Congress enacted that EPA subsequently approved.

In 1974, Congress enacted the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act (Act) with subsequent amendments. This authorized the construction, operation and maintenance of salinity control works in the Colorado River Basin, which included areas in the local Carbon and Emery County areas.

Title I of the Act addressed the United States commitments to Mexico established by agreement of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico. This agreement addresses the quality of water deliveries to Mexico. Title II of the Act created the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program and directed the United States Department of Agricutlure (USDA) and the EPA "to cooperate and coordinate their activities effectively to carry out the objective of controlling "the salinity of water delivered to users in the United States and Mexico."

From that time forward a number of government agencies including the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Utah Division of Agriculture and Foods (UDAF) have been working to improved the salt levels carried downstream from the upper basin.

"Over nine million tons of salt pass by Lee's Ferry (the dividing point between the upper basin and lower basin states) on the Colorado River each year," said Kib Jacobson, program manager for the BOR in Salt Lake. "The upper basin water is pretty pristine near the sources (300 ppm). But of all that salt that goes by Lee's Ferry, 50 percent is caused by humans."

Jacobsen says that is enough salt to fill a train of hopper cars 1,100 miles long or just about as long as the Colorado River itself.

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