Michael Cohen, Keynote

Senior Associate

Pacific Institute 


Michael Cohen is a Senior Associate at the Pacific Institute, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California. He has been a leading Salton Sea advocate for more than 20 years, developing revitalization proposals, promoting timely intervention, and writing articles, reports, and opinion pieces. Mr. Cohen is the lead author of three Pacific Institute reports on the Salton Sea:  Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea (1999), Hazard: The Future of the Salton Sea With No Restoration Project (2006), and Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea (2014), as well as an assessment of import/export proposals (see pacinst.org/issues/salton-sea/ for more information). He served on the Natural Resources Agency’s Salton Sea Advisory Committee from 2004-2007 and is a member of the Salton Sea Task Force’s Agency Stakeholder Committee and several of its workgroups. Mr. Cohen has a Master’s degree in Geography, with a concentration in Resources and Environmental Quality, from San Diego State University, and a B.A. in Government from Cornell University.

Title: Political and Environmental Challenges for the Salton Sea

Thursday, May 10th, 1:05 PM

Abstract: California’s Salton Sea recently passed a tipping point. The nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer, combined with several other factors, will reduce total inflows to the Sea by more than 20 percent in the next decade. As a result, the Sea’s already high salinity (>60 g/L TDS) will more than double as the lake’s surface drops by >14 feet, exposing >70 square miles of playa, in turn exacerbating already poor air-quality in the region. In November, 2017, California committed to the construction of 29,800 acres of habitat and dust-control projects in the next decade, but appears certain to miss this year’s acreage milestone, and likely will miss next year’s milestone as well, despite existing funding, permits, and water. After decades of research and more than fifty years of Salton Sea project proposals, California’s current program also lacks clear goals and objectives, suggesting that the lake does not rank highly on the state’s list of priorities.

The political and environmental challenges confronting California’s Salton Sea reflect broader challenges to water-dependent ecosystems throughout the West, including: ecosystem and public health impacts caused by agriculture-to-urban water transfers; direct and indirect climate change impacts; water quality issues associated with drainage-dependent ecosystems; ecosystem restoration versus rehabilitation; direct versus avoided costs of ecological rehabilitation; policy trade-offs associated with minimizing potential selenium toxicity, and ecological risks more generally; threats to avian species along migratory routes; public perception of “natural” versus “artificial” ecosystems; and prioritizing investment of public funds. The lessons learned from the Salton Sea could inform restoration efforts at the Great Salt Lake and other threatened ecosystems in the West.