Noxious fumes smelling of rotten eggs filled the air surrounding Coachella Valley on a hot day last month, triggering a warning alert from Southern California air quality regulators.
The culprit: the evaporating Salton Sea.
The saline lake is California’s largest, but it’s shrinking and growing saltier. Especially in extreme heat, the lake sends high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide into the air. The gas can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness, and in some cases, lead to asthma, according to public health officials. Asthma rates in Imperial and Coachella valleys have spiked in recent years due to environmental problems associated with the Salton Sea. It is growing drier, exposing its lakebed and sending more dust into the air, which can also cause breathing problems.
The lake’s imperiled state is killing off fish, and less frequent are the 400-plus species of waterfowl and shorebirds who depend on it as an important stop along their north-south migratory path.
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State lawmakers in 2003 vowed to restore the lake, roughly 350 square miles in diameter. But conditions have worsened.
State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, says the state needs millions more to help protect the sensitive ecosystem. A pair of measures advancing in the Legislature aim to speed up state restoration efforts, and ask voters next year to approve a $500 million general obligation bond to improve environmental and air quality conditions. That’s in addition to $80 million currently set aside in Proposition 1 funds.
“The Salton Sea is an essential resource in our state and we must diligently work to protect this natural habitat,” Hueso said in a statement following passage in the Legislature of a budget-related bill that would allocate an additional $1.4 million this year. “While we still have a long way to go, every bit of funding for the Salton Sea will help us reach our restoration goals.”
The lake is losing about 1 million acre-feet of water per year – about enough to cover a million football fields in a foot of water. Not only is it evaporating, but water levels are dwindling due to reduced inflows from nearby rivers, including the Colorado. More water is being diverted to populated areas, including San Diego County and the Coachella Valley, according to the state.
“Absent remediation efforts, health conditions at the Salton Sea will rapidly deteriorate for both humans and wildlife, especially with the water transfers increasing as of 2017 and a decrease in runoff flows to the Salton Sea,” Hueso’s Senate Bill 701 reads. Senate Bill 615 would require the state develop by Jan. 1, 2018, a 10-year implementation plan to resolve public health and environmental issues.
With hotter days ahead in July and August, the region can expect more notices from air quality regulators that hydrogen sulfide is reaching high levels in the atmosphere near Salton Sea and surrounding communities, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Last year, the hottest year on record, hydrogen sulfide levels triggered 55 notices that conditions could cause health problems, up from 27 in 2015 and 25 in 2014, according to Atwood.
“The imminent public health and economic ramifications of exposed playa will devastate the entire state,” said Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, co-author of the bills. “This year, we have the opportunity seize substantial and long overdue state investments into the Salton Sea. Our community’s human health and economic stability weigh in the balance.”
The $500 million bond bill next heads to the Assembly Appropriations committee. If ultimately signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would then go to voters in November 2018.
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WORTH REPEATING: “These are tactics that we all abhor. Let us not become the persons that we detest.” – Open letter from Assembly Democrats, decrying “bullying tactics” after the universal health bill was shelved.
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