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Salton Sea Dust, Air Quality to Get Closer Look in California

April 9, 2021, 6:49 PM

California’s shrinking Salton Sea is getting a closer look scientifically with the state, local air districts, and community groups examining air, water, and even dust from the parched shoreline where water was once plentiful.

The increased scrutiny comes as the state has continuously failed to meet dust suppression and habitat goals set in a 2017 management plan to restore nearly 30,000 acres of the state’s largest body of water by 2028.

The sea spans Imperial and Riverside counties near the Mexican border, where disadvantaged communities breathe some of the nation’s worst air and suffer from high asthma rates. Chronic nosebleeds are also common.

Last year saw some progress, with dust suppression work finished on 755 acres as part of an overall $206.5 million 4,100-acre habitat restoration effort beginning this year. But more is needed at the Salton Sea, which has been plagued by falling water levels, increased salinity, dying fish populations, and exposed seabed.

“The residents are frustrated and they are scared,” Katie Burnworth, a special projects coordinator at Imperial County Air Quality Management District, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s really hard when you have the unknown. When you don’t know what’s in the dust, you don’t know what to be afraid of.”

Composition of Dust

Imperial, South Coast Air Quality Management District, and the environmental justice group Comite Civico Del Valle are looking beyond particulate matter and into the composition of the dust. The state’s monitoring idea is more broad.

The California Natural Resources Agency plans to reinvigorate a dormant Salton Sea Science Committee in July and this summer release a draft monitoring plan to measure biological resources, hydrology, geology, socioeconomics, and water and air quality in the region. The information will be used to help evaluate future projects though the agency doesn’t presently foresee new policies or regulations arising out of that work, agency spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager said in an email Thursday.

Water Resources Control Board Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel said he was encouraged the science committee was coming back and that other data could help anchor future decisions, especially related to public health.

Imperial County is looking more specifically with an eye toward future regulation if specific pollutants or sources can be identified.

“Our biggest thing that we want to do is make sure the residents are safe,” Burnworth said. “Everybody here is entitled to clean air.”

Imperial County plans to install more instantaneous mobile monitoring by the end of the year to measure particulates, metals, and toxics. What is included in the salty leachate that gets pushed to the surface after rain will also be scrutinized more to see what else is in that mixture.

Additional toxics testing is planned for 2022, Burnworth said during a Salton Sea meeting Wednesday hosted by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Fugitive Emissions

South Coast air regulators are working with the University of California at Riverside School of Medicine to study fugitive dust emissions in hopes of distinguishing between playa dust and desert emissions in the area, Kevin Durkee, the agency’s quality assurance manager, said during the Water Board meeting. Fugitive dust is very small particles suspended in air, primarily mineral dust from soil.

“Hopefully that will give us a better understanding,” he said.

The agency also is expanding its particulate detection program and plans to add more than a dozen new air sensors in conjunction with community groups.

Comite Civico Del Valle, which is based in Imperial County, didn’t set out to monitor air. But it received some grant money to install their own equipment, enabling the group to provide residents with real-time trusted air quality information, executive director Luis Olmedo said Thursday. Today they have more than 60 monitors.

They’re also working with a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine to examine dust filter particulate matter to see how it may affect childhood health.

Residue from agriculture runoff, salt, industrial operations and other pollution could have gotten into the lake and playa as the water evaporated, allowing a toxic mix of contaminants to get into the air. But more study should not get in the way of action, he said.

“We cannot confuse that research with the urgency of putting projects in the ground,” he said. “We’re rating all the dust as toxic and we’re in a race against it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at