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Foul stink likely tied to dead fish at Salton Sea, strong winds

Authorities said the foul smell reported by thousands of Southern California residents from Palm Springs to Ventura County was mostly likely caused by a fish die-off at the Salton Sea combined with strong winds overnight that pushed the smell into the Los Angeles area.

Officials investigating stressed that they have not determined an official cause — and added they've never heard of the Salton Sea die-off smell spreading so far. But they say the sea is now the focus of the probe.

The general manager of the Salton Sea Authority said he’s not sure if the sea is the source of the foul odor, and is being inundated by telephone calls — including inquiries from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

“We really don’t know whether it’s the Salton Sea or not,’’ said Andy Schlange. “The best answer I can give you is that we’re looking into it.’’

Schlange said a major weather pattern whipped through the Salton Sea area Sunday night, with winds blowing north into the Coachella Valley topping 40 miles an hour.

Catching a whiff of the “Salton Sea odor” happens occasionally in the Palm Springs area about 35 miles away, but Schlange said he’s never heard of the smell traveling all the way to the Los Angeles Basin.

Schlange said there was a recent “fish kill” on the Salton Sea, a common occurrence when fish populations explode and oxygen is depleted. But it was not a major enough event to explain a foul smell traveling across Southern California.

Bill Meister, who works at a nonprofit agency that runs the Salton Sea visitor center and assists with preservation of the area, said the strong winds that came through the area yesterday may have been churned of smelly gases from the bottom of the shallow desert sea.

“The winds could have stirred up the water,’’ said 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.’’

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey told The Times that his department has received hundreds of phone calls about the odor.

"We are not aware of any specific hazard associated" with the odor, he added.

The smell was most pronounced in parts of the Inland Empire, which is upwind from the Salton Sea.

Winds could be blowing the odor from the Salton Sea into the Los Angeles area, according to a National Weather Service meteorologist. There is a low-pressure system around Baja California, which has led to winds blowing in a counter-clockwise direction, potentially pushing smells from the Salton Sea into the city, said Carol Smith.

“With the wind pattern, it seems possible,” she said.

ALSO:

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— Phil Willon in Riverside, Richard Winton, Jason Song, Hector Beccera and Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles

Photo: A wildlife refuge specialist steps out of an air boat onto the Salton Sea shore, which was littered with dead tilapia. Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times / Nov. 19, 2011.

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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