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Dead fish blamed for foul odor in Southern California

September 11, 2012 |  3:39 am

Experts believe the foul smell that hit parts of Southern California on Monday was caused by strong winds that churned up the smell of dead fish from the Salton Sea.

It’s unclear why some parts of Southern California smelled the odor more than others. Reports of the smell appeared greatest across the Inland Empire as well as the San Gabriel, San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys as well as Ventura County.

“We got enough public reaction that, in an abundance of caution, we sent our hazardous material team to monitor the atmospheric conditions,” Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said. “They reported that all levels were normal.”

Officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and other agencies said they have never dealt with a stench quite like this one. Although the fish die-off usually causes foul odors in parts of the Inland Empire, officials cannot recall it traveling this far.

“It’s very unusual that any odor would be this widespread, from the Coachella to Los Angeles County,” said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the air quality district. “We’re talking well over 100 miles. I can’t recall ever confirming an odor traveling that distance.”

The Salton Sea did track 40 mph winds Sunday night, and officials said that probably served as a trigger.

“The winds could have stirred up the water,” said Bill Meister, president of the Sea and Desert Interpretive Assn. “Because the lake is so shallow, and there is 100 years' worth of decayed material at the bottom, you’d get that rotten egg smell.”

At its deepest points, the Salton Sea is only about 50 feet, said Andrew Schlange, general manager of the Salton Sea Authority. The 360-square-mile body of murky, highly saline water is also receding into the desert. More water is evaporating from the sea than is flowing in from agricultural runoff. In some places the falling water line has uncovered thermal fields studded with features like geysers and boiling mud pots spewing clouds of steam and sulfur dioxide gas that smells like rotten eggs.

The “accidental sea” was created in 1905 when the Colorado River jumped its banks during a rainy season and gushed northward for months, filling an ancient salt sink. It’s 35 miles long, 15 miles wide and 227 feet below sea level.

Schlange said it’s a common occurrence for fish populations to explode and then suffer die-offs when oxygen is depleted from the sea.

“The problem is [the odor] would have to have migrated 50 to 100 miles without it being dissipated by mixing with other air. It doesn’t seem possible,” he said. “I’ve been in Southern California my whole life, and I’m not aware of any time in the past where the odor from the Salton Sea has migrated as far as people are telling us.”

That said, Schlange said, several factors could explain the far-traveling smell. In the last week, the blistering heat deprived parts of the Salton Sea of dissolved oxygen in the water, causing fish to die and settle in the bottom with other organic material, where they decompose. Then a thunderstorm barreled through the area Sunday night, churning moisture-laden air counterclockwise and pushing it from the southeast.

“That atmospheric flow would bring the smell up from the Salton Sea into the L.A. Basin here,” added Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “This was an ill wind that dropped from the Coachella Valley into the Inland Empire cul-de-sac and boogied west … into the San Gabriel Valley and L.A. County. The stink is normal around the Salton Sea. The strong winds are the unique occurrence that moved it into our 'hood.’ ”

Tim Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, said that as the Salton Sea’s water level declines, the most smelly water is slowly moving from the bottom closer to the surface. He believes the strong southeasterly storm and heavy winds Sunday pulled the fresher surface layer off the sea and replaced it with the more fetid water at the bottom.

“The magnitude of the odor is a factor of how long it’s been since it was stirred up,” he said. “Apparently it’s been a while, because it was pretty rank when I got up in the morning.”

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-- Ann M. Simmons, Richard Winton, Jason Song, Hector Becerra and Phil Willon

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