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Science With a Purpose

  • Hannah Hagemann

The Salton Sea is shrinking, and on December 31st the diverted water that currently sustains the man-made lake will be cut off and re-directed to San Diego and Coachella Valley. Affectionately referred to by locals as the “mistake”, the sea has a tumultuous history. Since the massive flooding of the Colorado River in 1905 that filled a basin at 226 feet below sea level, and created the sea, agricultural runoff from the surrounding inland empire, and water diversions from the Colorado River have filled California’s largest lake enough to keep it from drying up completely.

In the 1950’s Salton Sea’s Bombay Beach was hailed as a luxury resort for Los Angeles starlets to escape the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. However, without an outlet for water to drain, the glory of the Salton Sea was short-lived. The sea is 1.7 times more saline than the ocean, and anything that local farmers treat their crops with ends up in the man-made lake.


a postcard of Bombay Beach in the 1960's


A smaller Salton Sea creates three predicaments: habitat loss for birds who make the sea their home, a saltier sea that will be inhabitable for talapia, and worsening air quality for downwind communities. On November 7th, the State Water Resources Control Board, approved a $383 million-dollar, ten-year plan to mitigate these issues by restoring habitat and suppressing dust. The plan calls for 9,000 – 12,000 acres of engineered wetland habitat, and ponds over regions where shoreline is predicted to recede most dramatically over the next ten years; it’s estimated that by 2028, up to 60,000 acres of former sea will be exposed to the sun and become dry lake bed.



Satellite image of the Salton Sea in 1984 (top) and 2015 (bottom). Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen


As the sea shrinks, and more shoreline becomes exposed, larger amounts of dry lake-bed, or playa, dust will be carried into surrounding communities. Shoreh Farzan and Jill Johnston at the USC Keck School of Medicine are trying to quantify how much of the dust that locals are breathing in is coming from Salton Sea playa, and how air quality is affecting health. The ongoing research project is focusing on four cities down-wind of the sea; Brawley, Calpatria, Niland, and Westmorland.

The team created a respiratory health survey, and asked parents of first and second graders to fill it out. Of the four elementary schools (Miguel Higaldo in Brawley, Fremont Primary in Calipatria, Grace Smith in Niand, and Westmorland Union) surveyed the percentage of first to second graders with asthma was 16% – 30%. Farzan said of the results, “We saw high rates of wheezing and asthma, at levels that were higher than the state average, and quite a bit higher than the US average.” On the order of two to three times higher than the national average. The study found that 35 – 43% of those children also experienced regular wheezing, and 21% – 31% have to take medication for their condition.

Info-graphic courtesy of Shohreh Farzan, USC Keck School of Medicine


To understand what’s in the air, and if the particulate matter is indeed coming from dried up sea, the researchers set up air monitors on the roof of each school to analyze the makeup of the dust, and took samples of Salton Sea Playa to see what chemicals are in the dried-up lake bed. The filter based air monitors collected ambient samples over one-week periods, for a total of nine months. A pump slowly sucks in surrounding air, and the researchers specifically look at particles that are 2.5 – 10 microns.

These tiny particles are smaller than the width of a strand of hair, and when inhaled, they can get into the respiratory tract. A UC Riverside study found earlier this year found that these harmful particles in Salton Sea playa dust can be linked to cardiovascular disease, on top of respiratory illness. Currently, the UCLA team is analyzing the makeup of the dust samples and comparing those results with the playa samples they collected on the shoreline. The sample sets are both being analyzed for heavy metals, like Arsenic and Selenium, that are known to be in Salton Sea playa and toxic to humans.

Farzan expressed the importance of getting baseline measurements “Before any major changes made to diversions, so we can see how much dust is coming from the sea.”

Once the team has assessed the results, they plan to share what they find with the four communities the study focused on whom are most vulnerable to air quality issues. In spring of 2018, the UCLA team will conduct another respiratory health survey. The air monitoring component of the project is ongoing.

Until the results of the dust and playa makeup are published, you can see live what air conditions are like in the communities surrounding the Salton Sea on https://ivan-imperial.org/air . IVAN (Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods) is a community based environmental monitoring project, championed by Comito Civico de Valle, Inc. a non- profit that aims to inform and empower communities in the inland empire through knowledge about local environmental issues. On the IVAN website, anyone in the IE can report what they’re seeing in their neighborhood. Pictures of dirt roads and vacant lots fill the screen, one resident titles her photo “DUST TAKES OVER.”

Currently, only 80 million of the 383 million dollars needed for the 10-year restoration plan are secured. Those aren’t the only numbers that are concerning; if the engineered wetlands and dust suppression ponds are completed in full as the 10-year plan lays out, they would only cover less than a half of the 60,000 acres of dried up lake that is predicted to surface in the next ten years.

I drove along the Salton Sea a couple months ago, and there was something eerily beautiful about the steel blue grey water that seemed to stretch out for eternity and the white fishbone shore under the bright cold winter sun. On the other side of the road, green agricultural fields were endless, where the people who make up the communities that surround the man-made lake work long days on their feet pulling weeds and picking California’s food. Farzan commented on what makes these communities so vulnerable saying they “have trouble getting basic access to health care, and getting proper care for these health conditions [asthma, respiratory infections] can be challenging.” The connection between the proximity of these communities to the sea, and the extraordinarily high cases of asthma is not clear just yet, but what is apparent is that the health of these communities needs to be forefront in the conversation about the future of the Salton Sea.


An aerial photo of the receding shoreline near Niland, CA. Credit: Associated Press


Copyright © 2020 Hannah Hagemann