A rotten egg stench from the Salton Sea, shown in April, has caused air-quality problems for nine straight days, setting a new, albeit dubious record on Thursday, Sept. 10.
Residents in the close proximity of the Salton Sea are used to the seasonal rotten-egg stench, but not for nine days in a row.
Stationary air monitors northwest of the inland lake — in Mecca and the Torres-Martinez Reservation — have recorded elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide every day since Sept. 2, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. An odor alert also was issued Aug. 31.
So far, the peak reading was on Wednesday, with 183 parts per billion averaged over one hour, more than six times the state standard of 30 parts per billion . A reading was not available for Thursday, though an odor alert was in effect through midnight.
The stink was detected in Palm Springs to the Imperial Valley, residents said, thanks to monsoonal winds blowing out of the south.
Residents such as Linda Beal of Indio tried to carry on as usual, gardening and attending a weekend party at the sea’s Bombay Beach.
“If you get a lot of wind at the sea, it turns things over. It’s just a natural happening,” she said. “People that have allergies, it might be a little rougher on them. But I don’t think it will stop anybody from going out.”
It’s not unusual to have wind-driven odors blow off the dying sea in late summer, but they don’t occur for that many days in a row, Atwood said.
In a famous 2012 episode, the smell spread 150 miles west across Southern California and lasted for several days. In that episode, hydrogen sulfide levels reached 149 parts per billion, but it may actually have been worse. That measurement came from a sample collected long after the main plume was released, Atwood said.
At 30 parts per billion, people can experience headaches and nausea. One part per billion is like one drop of ink in a 14,000- gallon backyard swimming pool.
“People should be assured … our noses are extremely sensitive and can smell to these very low concentrations, but it’s not something that’s going to damage your health in the long term,” Atwood said.
Last week, hourly average concentrations of the gas in Mecca reached 129 parts per billion.
It was enough to bother students and staff at Saul Martinez Elementary School in Mecca, Principal Delia Alvarez said.
“We did have some strong odors for at least three days,” she said. “Sometimes it is a little distracting. When that happens, we get more kids with stomach aches, headaches or allergies, but we try to have a normal day.”
This isn’t the first time the school and surrounding community have experienced odors. In late 2010 and early 2011, strong odors sent some people to hospitals and forced the school to hold recesses indoors. They blamed odors from a soil recycling plant in Mecca, but state investigators could not determine a positive link.
During the well-publicized 2012 Salton Sea odor spread, regulators spent two days trying to confirm the source. At first, they thought it was coming from an oil refinery, since hydrogen sulfide is found in petroleum and natural gas. Afterward, the air district set up monitors at the elementary school and nearby Torres-Martinez Reservation.
In the Salton Sea’s case, hydrogen sulfide comes from decaying fish, leaves and other organic matter. The compound tends to stay trapped at the bottom when the lake is calm but surfaces when wind stirs the water.
The Salton Sea, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, has been shrinking as Colorado River deliveries decline and farmers plant less acreage, resulting in less irrigation runoff into the sea. In 2017, water to the sea will decrease greatly when an agreement to transfer water from farms to coastal cities kicks into high gear.
Those issues, combined with climate changes, are expected to exacerbate odor problems at the sea.
The odors are often a topic of conversation among Jim Cornett and his neighbors in Palm Springs. He’s been smelling the sulfur stench for about two days.
“We are getting just a little bit. It’s not noticeable unless you think about it,” he said. “I can’t say it’s reached the level of obnoxiousness.”