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Stench across Southern California highly unusual, officials say

September 10, 2012 |  3:54 pm

When the rotten egg smell wafted into the Santa Clarita United Methodist Church in Saugus on Monday morning, she thought the church’s sewer pipe had burst.  

More than 70 miles to the east, steelworker Chris Tatum’s nostrils got the punch in Riverside, and he assumed a brush fire had just broken out.

“It reeks,” he said. “It smells like rotten mush.”

Southern California awoke Monday morning to a foul odor that wouldn’t go away.

Residents clogged 911 lines with calls, prompting health officials from Ventura County to Palm Springs to send out investigators looking for everything from a toxic spill to a sewer plant leak.

But the prime suspect was 100 miles away from Los Angeles. The leading theory is that the stink was caused by the annual die-off of fish in the Salton Sea. Officials believe Sunday evening’s thunderstorms and strong winds churned up the water and pushed that dead-fish smell to points west overnight.

Officials from the air quality management district and other agencies said they’ve never dealt with a stench quite like this. Although the fish die-off usually causes foul odors in parts of the Inland Empire, officials cannot recall it moving this far west.

“It’s very unusual that any odor would be this widespread, from the Coachella to Los Angeles County,” said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management 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 60 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 receding 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 rotted 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 it 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 things have happened with the sea and the weather that 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 air counterclockwise and pushing the moisture-laden air 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 Canada 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.”

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

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