Mystery Stench Solved: Salton Sea Is Smelly Source

Official say that air quality tests performed Wednesday show that the Salton Sea likely caused the foul sulphur smell reported across Los Angeles on Monday.

Since Monday, when people in L.A. County first noticed a sulfur stink in the air, there has been the .

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) suggested and today, the provided further confirmation, saying 'solid evidence' backs up the idea that the Salton Sea caused the stink.

For those who don't know, the Salton Sea is a high saline low-elevation lake in the Imperial Valley.  The body of water was created in 1905 from a flood from the Colorado River.  

However, the low elevation basin has alternatively been a fresh water lake, salt water lake and empty desert basin throughout its geological history, according to Wikipedia.

The full details of the AQMD's release is below.  And please do let us know in the comments if you are still smelling the stink. 

From an AQMD news release:

Air quality officials have further confirmed the Salton Sea as the likely source of strong sulfur odors smelled by thousands of residents across more than 150 miles of the Southland yesterday.

“We now have solid evidence that clearly points to the Salton Sea as the source of a very large and unusual odor event,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

AQMD technicians took numerous air samples in Riverside and San Bernardino counties yesterday while AQMD field inspectors, trained to gauge the severity of odors, conducted odor surveillance in the Coachella Valley and across the agency’s four-county jurisdiction.

Today’s analysis of the air samples showed a clear progression of hydrogen sulfide levels, with the highest concentrations found at the Salton Sea and decreasing concentrations found as the distance increased from the sea. (See table below) This progression, or gradient, points to the Salton Sea as the source of the odor, Wallerstein said.

In addition, AQMD inspectors visited some of the potential sources such as landfills and oil refineries and ruled them out as the potential sources of widespread odors. AQMD officials also performed air quality modeling showing that strong odors could have traveled across the region given recent weather conditions.

Hydrogen sulfide, a product of organic decay such as that occurring in the Salton Sea, has an unmistakable rotten-egg odor. Scientists have theorized that strong winds pushed surface waters aside and allowed water from the bottom of the shallow sea -- rich with decaying and odorous bacteria -- to rise to the surface.

While hydrogen sulfide concentrations at the Salton Sea yesterday were higher than normal, they were not high enough to cause irreversible harm to human health, AQMD officials said. This is the case even taking into account that concentrations in the early hours Monday may have been considerably higher than when AQMD technicians sampled for the gas on Monday evening.

Since midnight Sunday (12:10 a.m. Monday) AQMD has received about 235 complaints of sulfur- and rotten-egg type odors. Almost all calls were received by 5:30 p.m. on Monday, with only a dozen or so received overnight and Tuesday morning.

On Sunday evening, a strong thunderstorm developed over the Salton Sea and winds from the southeast of at least 50 mph pushed odors from the Salton Sea to the northwest – across the Coachella Valley, through the Banning Pass and across the Los Angeles Basin, air quality officials said. Since yesterday, an onshore breeze from the west appears to have kept any remaining odors from spreading far into the Los Angeles Basin.

Home Ranger September 13, 2012 at 04:05 PM
"According to Wikipedia??!!" Really? Some real heavy reporting here!
Martyr September 13, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Recently, the water runoff from Imperial Valley farms has been bought by San Diego and regions south, meaning the only source of water INTO the Salton Sea has been cut off. It will continue to degrade into a septic disaster unless we face the problem.
Brian September 15, 2012 at 11:57 PM
The Salton Sea Authority (www DOT saltonsea DOT ca DOT gov) is in charge of the Salton Sea environment and surrounding area. I would issue them an 'F' grade thus far. There are VIABLE SOLUTIONS available to them that could minimize the: a) fish die-offs, b) salinity, c) sulpher odor; but which have not been explored / implemented. One relatively easy and INEXPENSIVE idea / approach that has not yet been tried at Salton Sea is to AERATE THE WATER using a combination of powerful electric pumps, under-water hoses filled with holes to allow air bubbles to surface, Solar Panels and AC inverters to power the electric pumps. The Salton Sea basin has full sun about 355 days per year. Aerating water OXYGENATES the water and will reverse and eventually eliminate the trend of the fish dying off each season due to low oxygen levels in the stagnent water. The Salton Sea once used to be a nice place in the 1950s with water skiing, bars, restaurants, big name entertainment, etc. This is a damn shame since a basic cleanup effort could revive the Sea. A desalination plant would be the second step of solving / managing the environmental problems at the Sea. Once the salinity is under control and the water is oxygenated, the water will turn blue again with no odors. Water CAN BE cleaned up despite it being very stagnant, all you need is aeration.
William Korn September 16, 2012 at 04:26 AM
Good points, Brian, but there are two parts missing from your analysis. Where does the money come from to do all this? The state of California seems to think it's broke. And how will any of these measures keep the Salton Sea from evaporating entirely if its main source of water has been diverted? It will become more saline as more water evaporates without replacement, and probably more toxic to whatever lives in/uses it.
Brian September 20, 2012 at 05:20 AM
@William: I'll address the missing parts: You ask "where does the money come from to do all of this?" The environmentally toxic condition of the Salton Sea should easily qualify it for the federal 'Superfund List' cleanup designation, whereby federal money is provided for that purpose. The use of solar energy to power electric pumps on barges and along the shoreline is not too complicated a task. Building several desalination plants (10 million apiece is the big job). All of those costs could be covered under the Superfund program . As to the second part of your question about water diversion let me address that. Fresh water can be generated the same way as its done on large sailboats / yachts, and as it has been on Catalina Island for many years - using desalination plants powered with solar energy and wind power. These plants could be built along the coast, easing the Colorado river water demand by Southern CA households. We live next to the Pacific ocean with essentially unlimited amounts of saltwater that can be converted to fresh water. Utilizng federal superfund money, this Salton area can be cleaned up (5+ year process) and become a place to live & play once again. The Salton Sea is almost the size of Tahoe but only 60 feet deep at most. Imagine the investment opportunities if that Sea were pristine once again - boating, water skiing, camping, offroading, restaurants, bars, evening entertainment, casinos, etc. And its a close drive to Southern CA.


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