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.

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

Discussing the Future of the Salton Sea

Last Thursday the NSF WaterSENSE IGERT program, UC Riverside School of Public Policy and Salton Sea Sense had the distinct pleasure of hosting a panel discussion consisting of:

The panelists were able to offer the federal, state, and local perspective on the future of the Salton Sea, and they all expressed a lot of hope and excitement. Continue reading “Discussing the Future of the Salton Sea”

Response to SSRREI

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Last week, Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) released a draft of a proposal developed to be presented to the State of California. This proposal, named the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative (SSRREI) is different from previous remediation proposals submitted on behalf of the Salton Sea by various groups. This proposal in particular does not merely ask for a large sum of money, but delineates just how the state can fund the project and recover its investment. Continue reading “Response to SSRREI”

The Value of the Sea

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When deciding whether it is useful to invest resources in a public good, one must compare costs and returns. If the returns outweigh the costs and risks, then we would be better off by allocating resources to the investment. What if such public or private good already exists, such as a part of nature, and we ask ourselves: Is the value of maintenance greater than the cost of upkeep? Or can we do better by developing it into something else?

Think of the Grand Canyon, a US national park that had close to 4.6 million visitors in 2013 [1]. Consider the economic benefits of those visitors and the price of preserving the park in its natural state. What if, instead, we could develop the Grand Canyon to build malls and casinos? Would it bring in more revenue? Many would argue, with reason, that given the uniqueness of the national park, the Grand Canyon in its natural state is a more valuable resource than in any other form.

Value is usually gauged by market prices. Given that the Grand Canyon is not a market good with a price tag, what is its value? Economists have long thought about ways to elicit the value of non-market goods, paving the way for the field of environmental valuation [2] . Many valuation methods have been used to produce estimates of existence and use value of natural habitats. These estimates often provide robust lower bound measures of worth that are high enough to justify the existence, maintenance or development of new parks, beaches, forests, etc. Economists have found that value can be determined by the prices people are willing to pay to visit a place, or how much they would pay to preserve it (even if they do not intend to visit) and by taking into account how changes in environmental quality affect wildlife, human health and worker productivity [3].

So, what do economists say about the value of the Salton Sea? Continue reading “The Value of the Sea”

A Treasure Buried Underground

Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, tends to be associated with agriculture, and there are many reasons why this is so. According to the Imperial County’s agricultural report the gross value of farm products reached 2.15 billion dollars in 2013 [1]. That is more money than the GDP of at least 30 countries. In more concrete terms, around 80% of the winter crops consumed in the United States are grown in Imperial County. Since economic geography is continuously changing and in light of California’s ongoing drought and expected changes from the diversion of water to San Diego County, one wonders how big of a role can agriculture continue to play in the region. It is hard to predict what will happen. While the heat and water on the surface are quintessential for the economic powerhouse that is agriculture in this region, the heat and water under its ground evoke another major opportunity that is increasingly becoming more and more important: geothermal power. Continue reading “A Treasure Buried Underground”

The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Disaster

Located roughly 160 miles from Los Angeles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water. Accidentally “created,” as part of a disastrous large-scale irrigation scheme to divert the waters of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley at the turn of the twentieth-century (1905-1907), the Salton Sea is a cultural, legal, and environmental space that defies easy categorization. It has shaped, and been shaped by, what historian Linda Nash, writing in a different regional context, has called “a tangle of discourses.” [1] Accordingly, it is, at once, oasis and sump, refuge and refuse, mishap and miracle; it is a sea of contradictions where the intersection of human aspirations and natural forces have created a “hybrid landscape” that underscores the latent consequences of “progress.” [2]

Continue reading “The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Disaster”