SANTA ANA, Calif. • The saltwater lake that could be to blame for a rotten-egg stench that seeped through greater Los Angeles on Monday has bigger problems than its public image.
The massive body of water 150 miles southeast of the City of Angels is a dying lake, plagued by increasing salinity, receding shorelines and periodic fish die-offs caused by plummeting oxygen levels in its briny waters.
Regional air quality officials were awaiting test results Tuesday to determine if the stench came from the lake, but many experts believed the Salton Sea was the culprit. A massive thunderstorm packing wind gusts of up to 60 mph late Sunday could have churned up the sea’s bottom, releasing odorous bacteria from a recent fish die-off there, said Andrew Schlange, general manager of the Salton Sea Authority, the agency tasked with saving the sea.
Winds carried the stench more than 100 miles, through Riverside and San Bernardino counties through Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and all the way to Ventura County on California’s Central Coast in an event those familiar with the Salton Sea called unprecedented.
“The problem I’m having is the magnitude of the area that was covered by the odor itself. But I guess it can happen under the right conditions, and we had those conditions, apparently, the other night,” Schlange said. “What happened gives us an opportunity to let people know that the Salton Sea is dying and that we need to fix it.”
The South Coast Air Quality Management District was awaiting the results of tests on air samples taken close to the Salton Sea and the nearby Coachella Valley, as well as on samples taken from nearly a dozen other cities across the region.
Strengthening breezes in the area Tuesday dissipated the smell, much to the relief of residents.
Julie Hutchinson, battalion chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Riverside, said the air was clear and her agency hadn’t received any calls.
“We’re not getting anything. I don’t notice much of anything right now,” said Hutchinson, who lives and works in Riverside County, home to the Salton Sea. “It seems to have diminished throughout the region.”
At the peak of the stench Monday, residents from Riverside County to the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles lit up switchboards and social media to make a stink about the stink. The district was flooded with more than 200 complaints from across much of its 10,000 square miles.
Created in 1905 when floodwaters broke through a Colorado River irrigation canal, the 376-square-mile Salton Sea is bigger than Lake Tahoe but is only 51 feet deep at its deepest spot and has no outlet to the ocean. Ninety percent of its water comes from agricultural runoff from the nearby Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys — a fact that gives the lake its unique soup, but also causes its many problems.
The lake, which is 235 feet below sea level, is currently 50 percent saltier than the ocean and salinity levels are expected to increase even more as it shrinks.
The salinity makes the water extremely fast for boating and the lake is a popular recreational destination for boaters, bird watchers, campers and anglers who fish for species introduced there.
The rising salt level, however, has meant the demise in the past decade of several big game marine fish species. The only species remaining are tilapia, which have gradually adapted to the saltwater, and the desert pupfish, said Timothy Krantz, an environmental studies professor at the University of Redlands.
Even those species are now struggling, and there have been fish die-offs every summer in recent years when the water heats up and oxygen levels drop, said Krantz, who has also served as the Salton Sea program’s database director for 15 years. Summer temperatures can soar to 120 degrees or more.
More than 400 species of migratory birds have been recorded at the Salton Sea, making it host to the highest biodiversity for bird species in the U.S.
The birds, however, will eventually be threatened by the lake’s rising salinity as fish die-offs remove their main food source.
The lake’s depth has dropped in recent years, creating exposed lake bed that generates dust. By 2018, the depth is expected to drop another 15 to 20 feet, exposing 140 square miles of lake bottom and its dust, Krantz said.
“That’s yet another huge problem that’s impending,” he said. “There is hope, but something absolutely has to be done. It’s not just about birds and wildlife anymore. It’s about human health issues and averting a potential air pollution disaster.”
The Salton Sea Authority has a plan to save the sea, but has struggled for years to get funding and political muscle behind it. In 2006, various estimates put the cost between $3 billion and $9 billion, said Andrew Schlange, the authority’s general manager.
The plan involves stabilizing the sea level by cutting the body of water in half and allowing part of it to dry up, he said. The dried lakebed could host extensive geothermal and solar fields that would mitigate the restoration cost and provide power for millions of homes.
Officials would then work to reduce the salinity in the remaining lake.
“It’s exciting to think about trying to fix it, and it can be fixed,” Schlange said. “What we need is for the public to understand ... that this is likely to happen more often as time goes on, and we need their support to find a way to finance and pay for this thing.”