When taking a deep breath is hazardous: The physical and mental health costs of a shrinking Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is California’s largest body of water and is disappearing at an accelerated rate due to climate change, drought, and reduced agricultural runoffs. The Salton Sea is technically a lake; as the lake evaporates and shrinks, its dry lakebed containing toxic arsenic, selenium, chromium, lead, and pesticides from the nearby farms, becomes exposed. Scientists warn that chemicals trapped in the lakebed deposits can be picked up by winds, spreading toxic dust particles throughout the atmosphere in Imperial and Coachella Counties. A recent study led by graduate student Alexander Frie and Dr. Roya Bahreini, PhD from the University of California, Riverside has already found high concentrations of sodium and selenium in airborne particulate matter surrounding the sea and traced about 10% of particulate matter back to lakebed dust. As the shoreline shrinks, more lakebed is exposed, generating heavier dust emissions. These emissions contribute to greater airborne pollution, worsening air quality.

SSS- Shoreline.pngAn expanding lake bed. Photo credit: Devon Christopher Adams

Airborne particulate pollution and poor air quality are linked to a number of respiratory diseases. Public health officials are concerned that dust emissions from the shrinking Salton Sea are threatening the health of the predominantly Latino population that live nearby. Imperial County experiences hazardous air quality conditions—and a shrinking Salton Sea will only make air pollution matters worse. Around 23,000 Imperial County residents, including children, are currently diagnosed with asthma. In fact, Imperial County experiences the highest number of pediatric asthma-related emergency room visits in the entire State of California. While it is tough to directly attribute the cause of this rampant asthma to the increasingly exposed lakebed and increased dust emissions resulting from it, research outcomes reveal robust links between airborne particulate pollution and the development of asthma in childhood.

SSS - LakebedSalton Sea lakebed. Photo credit: Kevin Key

Unfortunately, the potential public health costs of a receding Salton Sea shoreline extend far beyond respiratory health problems. A number of research studies have linked pediatric asthma to childhood anxiety and mood disorders. High concentrations of airborne particulate pollution can indirectly pose a mental health threat, too. One study in Pakistan of low income children found that children with asthma are 18 times more likely to have mental health problems than those without asthma, even after considering differences that might exist among the children, like their age, sex, household size, birth weight, allergies, and whether they had a family history of asthma. Another study from Australia, tracking children over several years, found that a diagnosis of severe and persistent asthma at 5 years of age was linked to a significantly greater risk for developing anxiety and other mental health problems in early adolescence. Having poorly managed asthma makes it more likely a child will develop mental health problems; and the worse the air quality, the harder it is to manage asthma.

SSS - Fish.pngDead fish at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Devon Christopher Adams

Public health officials in Imperial County could promote programs that can target the respiratory and mental health problems that a shrinking Salton Sea may be amplifying. Heightened stress levels among families with asthmatic children have been shown to exacerbate both asthma and anxiety symptoms. A study in California found that high parental stress and low socio-economic status were both linked to increased risk for asthma among families exposed to high concentrations of airborne particulate pollution. Unfortunately, close to a quarter of the population in Imperial and Coachella counties are currently living in poverty, which not only increases familial stress levels but also reduces access to therapy and other comprehensive mental and physical healthcare services. For lower income families, affordable, easy-to-implement stress management practices could impact both asthma and anxiety development and symptoms.

SSS - Dusty Sky.pngDust skies at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Kevin Key

Education programs that teach families about the importance of stress management for disease care and provide useful, feasible stress management strategies that cater to Imperial County residents may generate numerous benefits. In order for community-based stress management programs to be effective though, they should consider that environmental, financial, and physical health-related constraints may render many common strategies impractical. For example, preventative measures like spending time outdoors or in nature, engaging in physical exercise and receiving sun exposure to stimulate vitamin D production are cost-effective but potentially counterproductive when air quality problems mean that it is safer for families to stay indoors. Furthermore, several of the free, indoor preventative strategies such as yoga, using breathing-focused relaxation techniques, and practicing good sleep hygiene may be especially difficult for individuals with poorly-managed or severe asthma that have trouble breathing. Minimal knowledge of stress management options that are affordable, safe and practical for families with asthmatic children may increase the mental and physical health risks among Imperial County community members.

SSS - Dust StormA dust storm at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Kevin Key

A comprehensive plan to mitigate the public health risks faced by Imperial County residents requires urgent attention not only to the worsening air quality but also to familial stress management practices. Public health education campaigns could teach low-cost, easy-to-implement stress management techniques, specifically for families with asthma sufferers living in regions with hazardous air quality conditions. Educating families about the health risks the lake may pose could foster collaborative efforts among residents, community organizations, and policy makers to work together on sea management solutions that consider its broader public health consequences. The type of education campaign needed is not easily created, but is increasingly necessary. As the Sea recedes at a rapid pace, families and children are placed at cumulative risk for simultaneously developing multiple illnesses, spanning physical and mental health. With a quarter of the regional population living in poverty, the local community cannot afford to shoulder the accumulating health care costs that can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to the Salton Sea. A broad-gauged approach is needed that not only directly addresses the shrinking sea but also considers the livelihood and position of families in the surrounding community.

By Parisa Parsafar

Parisa is a fourth-year doctoral student in Developmental Psychology and an interdisciplinary NSF WaterSENSE IGERT Fellow at the University of California, Riverside. Her work uses eye-tracking, behavioral, and physiological measures to understand cognitive and emotional-regulatory processes related to how people (children and adults) manage negative emotional situations.

Shrinking Shorelines Symposium

Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea:

Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions


On Friday May 11, 2018, the University of California, Riverside – Palm Desert Center along with the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside hosted a symposium, Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea: Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions. This invitation-only event was attended by nearly 100 people and brought together many policymakers, research scientists, community leaders, students, and other Salton Sea experts for the first time. With a shared goal of supporting action to protect the environment and public health at the Sea, panel discussions and presentation topics ranged from air quality science to environmental justice.

Continue reading “Shrinking Shorelines Symposium”

CA Salton Sea Management Program: 10-Year Plan

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The California Natural Resources Agency published its Phase 1 plan for the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP) in March 2017, which details the technical and economic justification and implementation of a series of projects until 2028. Notable characteristics of the plan include:

  • Creation of a “smaller and sustainable” Salton Sea
  • Focus on expediting habitat creation and dust suppression for most immediate areas of risk
  • Adaptive management strategy, meaning that projects are planned incrementally over the next 10 years and processes for adding future projects is outlined specifically
  • Total project costs are projected to be $303 million through 2028, but the source of these funds is not yet clear

Restorative action at the Salton Sea has been minimal for more than a decade, which the State attributes to a lack of shared vision and necessary funds—until recently. That summer, it was announced that a $200 million allocation by the State of California has been secured to begin work on the SSMP, a small piece of a $4 billion measure for statewide parks and water projects (Proposition 68) that will go before voters this June. In the meantime, CA Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia spearheaded a bill that secured $280 million for the SSMP just last month.

The plan involves the creation of a “water backbone” for the Salton Sea, which will start in the southern rim as a mix of current Salton Sea water and incoming freshwater from the New and Alamo Rivers. The backbone will enable this blended water to be delivered to several ongoing habitat conservation and dust suppression projects like the species conservation habitat, Red Hill Bay, and the Torres-Martinez wetlands.

Salton Sea
Photo credit: Jay Calderon and Richard Lui

However, the plan for future projects is less clear. The SSMP cites hydrologic modeling of predicted inflows, salinity, precipitation, evaporation, and water usage in order to estimate playa exposure and risk to humans and the environment. The initial conditions for these models were taken from as long ago as 1988 and only as recent as 2012, highlighting the pressing need for more environmental monitoring at the Sea. Currently, models predict that over 48,000 acres of playa will be exposed by 2028, but the SSMP acknowledges that the ongoing drought on the Colorado River is likely to further decrease inflows to the Salton Sea.

Phase 1 of the SSMP includes construction of 29,800 acres of habitat conservation and dust suppression projects. The types of projects are defined as:

  • Wetland habitat
  • Dry playa habitat
  • Mud, sandflat, and beach habitat
  • Mid- and deep-water habitat
  • Water dependent dust suppression (vegetation and flooding)
  • Waterless dust suppression (surface roughening, cover, or suppressant application)

The amount and location of these project types will depend on emissivity data and calculated “emissivity potential” for exposed playa, but will largely be focused on the north and south ends of the Sea because of the more rapid rates of playa exposure there. Exposed areas on the east and west sides of the water backbone infrastructure may be made available for agriculture or renewable energy projects.

The plan is broken up into three geographical and chronological pieces:

  1. New River West, including the initial water backbone infrastructure. Construction beginning ASAP.

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  2. New River East, which includes the species conservation habitat (SCH). Construction beginning in 2019.

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  3. Whitewater River, including the Torres-Martinez wetlands. Construction beginning in 2020.

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  4. Alamo River South, including Red Hill Bay. Construction beginning in 2021.

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  5. Alamo River North. Construction beginning in 2022.
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Over the next ten years, the SSMP will cost $303 million, with a large portion coming from the recently allocated CA bond funds. Other potential sources of funding include Prop 1, Prop 84, CA State Water Resources Control Board, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the long term plans for the Salton Sea remain up in the air, short term action by the State of California to suppress dust, protect public health, and mitigate losses in bird and fish habitats is finally in place.

Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea

A symposium on community impacts, recent research, and possible solutions

On May 11th, 2018, a symposium will be held at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus, which aims to explore community impacts, recent research, and possible solutions for the Salton Sea. Policy makers, scientists, stakeholders, and community members will come together to discuss the latest policy solutions surrounding the Salton Sea, the potential impacts and benefits surrounding the draft ten-year plan on both Riverside and Imperial County communities, recent research considering alternative water sources to maintain Salton Sea inflows and our understanding of the air quality effects, and, discussions surrounding social justice and actions.

Updated:
Click here to the full summary of the symposium, view pictures, and download presentations.

Federal Support for the Salton Sea

In 2007, Senator Barbara Boxer, along with other sponsors, pushed to pass the Water Resources Development Act into law, overriding a presidential veto. In addition to other projects across the country, the bill laid out several steps for designing and implementing a series of pilot projects to investigate ways of avoiding and mitigating the possible impacts of the drying Salton Sea. First, pilot projects would be chosen based on their feasibility as described in the Department of Water Resources’ funding plan. Then, appropriate pilot projects—if approved by the state and the Salton Sea Authority—would be implemented with the state paying 35% of the cost and federal funding supplying the rest. The bill concludes with a federal spending authorization: $30,000,000, intended for the support of at least six separate pilot projects. Continue reading “Federal Support for the Salton Sea”

Salton Sea and the New Normal

Last month, Salton Sea Sense had the opportunity to host and hear from Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate at the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute aims to provide science-based leadership and outreach to inform public water policy, and Cohen has been working specifically on the Salton Sea since 1998. He recently published an excellent Institute blog post on the current “fortunes and prospects” at the Sea, which is available here.

In his talk at UC Riverside, Cohen outlined some of the challenges that continue to face the Salton Sea. One of those challenges is the perception of Sea as an “artificial” ecosystem, which we have previously blogged about. Cohen pointed out that the whole of the State of California’s water is part of a managed system that includes man-made aqueducts, reservoirs and pumps. The Salton Sea is an essential part of this system as one of the last remaining aquatic habitat options in the southwestern United States for birds on the Pacific Flyway. Continue reading “Salton Sea and the New Normal”

Year in Review

This week, Salton Sea Sense is celebrating its one-year anniversary of blogging about the ecological, environmental, and cultural value of the Salton Sea. We have had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the Sea, meet passionate community members and informative stakeholders, and engage in a wide range of science and policy-making conversations on the future of the Sea. Plus, we have had a lot of fun doing it.

Here are the most popular Salton Sea Sense blog posts for the past year: Continue reading “Year in Review”