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California officials need to start focusing on restoring the ailing Salton Sea or else the state faces hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs as early as 2025, according to a new state audit.

The sea, the state's largest body of water, has been steadily shrinking, exposing the polluted seabed to desert winds. Experts say air-quality risks will increase beginning in 2017, when the sea stops receiving extra water as part of a landmark 2003 pact that reduces the flow the state receives from the Colorado River.

The state, though, has taken only small steps to fix the sea. Today's report by the Bureau of State Audits found that the Salton Sea Restoration Fund — the account created by the Legislature in 2003 to pay for mitigation projects and other work at the sea — is projected to have received $81.8 million through 2047. That is only a fraction of the lowest cost estimates for restoring the sea, which range from $2.3 billion to $8.9 billion.

The state will be on the hook for all sea-related costs as early as 2025, according to the audit. The bureau recommends that the Legislature and the state Resources Agency better define the components of a study lawmakers approved looking at possible restoration work — and how to pay for it.

"It is imperative that the feasibility study also include viable funding options for hte proposed restoration activities," the audit recommended.

In his response to the audit, Secretary of Resources John Laird said his agency has no concerns with the auditors' recommendations "and looks forward to working with the Legislature on this very important issue."

PHOTO A man and his son enjoy a morning along the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, along the sea's northeast shore, in 2002. The Salton Sea, located in Imperial and Riverside counties, is the largest body of water within California. The Sacramento Bee / Dick Schmidt


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