Twice a month, Mariela Loera knocks on doors in California’s eastern Coachella Valley. Part of her job, as a policy advocate with the nonprofit Leadership Advisor for Justice and Accountabilityis to provide sympathetic ears to members of the community, many of whom work on the region’s green farms growing citrus, dates and other winter crops.
Most of the people Laura talks to are middle-aged mothers. In almost every home, you hear the same thing: “One or more of my children have asthma or some type of respiratory illness.” If it’s summer, you may hear complaints of headaches and nosebleeds due to poor air quality.
“It’s the same story that’s repeated with almost everyone I’ve spoken to,” says Loera, who has been working with community members for nearly two years. “People are trying to understand why this happened.”
In most cases, reducing the disease to a single cause is difficult, if not impossible. But in the case of the eastern Coachella Valley, there’s a big reason looming: the nearby Salton Sea. “It’s definitely one of the major contributors to the air quality in the area, and thus the symptoms,” Loera says.
The problem with 340 square miles Salton Sea– Its name is a misnomer, because it’s actually the largest lake in California – it’s shrinking. It’s a fate that a handful of other lakes are facing across the country and around the world — as a result of upstream water shifts, global warming, human mismanagement, and other factors.
Lake Owens in California, for example, has Shrinked to less than a third from his former territory; While I reached the Great Salt Lake in Utah Lowest level since 1847 This July. Iran’s Lake Urmia, which was once the largest lake in the Middle East, has Shrink approximately 90% Over the past three decades; While Lake Bobo was in Bolivia completely dried out in 2015.
As the lakes disappear, they leave behind a host of problems: wildlife degradation; Tourism is receding away. people are displaced and livelihoods suffer; Weather patterns have changed; And water is scarce, which in turn Affect local agriculture and food supply.
It also has severe effects on human health. When the water disappears, it reveals the bottom of the lake, or plaques — which can dry up quickly to form a layer of sediment and dust, says Michael Cohen of Pacific Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California that focuses on water issues. In the Salton Sea, for example, Over 18,000 acres of beaches It has been revealed since the early 2000s.
When winds release this dust, “the fine particles travel through the air and get trapped in the air,” says Cohen, who has been studying the Salton Sea for more than two decades. The particles can travel long distances and people can inhale them.
Inhaling these particles can lead to lung inflammation, says Kent Pinkerton, PhD, professor of pulmonology at the University of California, Davis. “Inflammation isn’t always bad, it’s a natural process that helps remove particles.”
But when there’s a lot of dust, “you start to see infection, damage, and death of lung cells,” he said. “When the particles go down into the deep lung cells that line the alveoli, where we have gas exchange and that’s very sensitive … it can be very problematic.”
The result is respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies, and chronic sinus infections. Young children who have an immune system and The lungs are still developingparticularly vulnerable. Almost one in five children with asthma in Imperial County, south of the Salton Sea, which also has the highest rates of childhood hospitalizations and emergency room visits (Twice the state average).
If the exposed lake bed is left unchecked, it may release up to 100 tons of dust per day, causing some to endure $37 billion in associated health care costs by 2047Pacific Institute estimates.
To make matters worse, very fine particles can penetrate the lung epithelium and enter the circulation, which can cause cardiovascular problems, Pinkerton says. “This may lead to plaque formation, occlusion of blood vessels, myocardial infarction, or simply inflammation of the heart tissue.” Most at risk are young children, the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart conditions.
Efforts are already underway to address the problems, with a major focus on suppressing dust from dry lake beds. This can take different forms, depending on the makeup of the individual lake and the desired results, says Armistid Russell, Ph.D., an air pollution expert at Georgia Institute of Technology who was a member of the Owens Lake Scientific Advisory Committee.
In Owens Lake — now the largest source of man-made dust in America, having drained in the 1920s to meet Los Angeles’ growing water needs — the preferred method is shallow flooding, he says. her efforts Reducing air pollution levels In the region for the past two decades: in 2018, there were only 8 days when PM10 Levels (a measure of inhalable particles 10 micrometers and smaller) exceeded healthy levels, compared to 49 days in 2002.
A similar solution is now being explored in the Salton Sea. But these dust suppression measures come at a heavy cost: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy has spent an estimated $2.1 billion on Owens Lake as of May 2019, and about 31% of its fresh water supply on efforts to address the problem. In Salton Sea, a project aimed at collecting and distributing water on 4,000 acres of dry lakebed is expected to cost approximately $206 million.
Fortunately, there are other options as well. These include mulching with gravel, plowing the ground to roughen its surface, planting special salt-tolerant plants to keep out dust, and building sand fences or straw bales. “The idea is to minimize or remove dust from these exposed areas,” Cohen says.
But it’s not just the size of airborne particles that is a problem; It is their content. The dry basins of salt lakes, such as the Salton Sea, tend to be rich in sodium chloride, magnesium, and other minerals. But it can also contain harmful chemicals.
For example, the water flowing into the Salton Sea comes from agricultural runoff. “There are a lot of pesticides used in the area…and some heavy metals like selenium are there as well,” Cohen says. “When these get into your nervous system, they also trigger an immune response.”
The Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, provides a cautionary tale. The lake was the fourth largest salt lake in the world, and it has shrunk to 25% of its original size over the past 50 years. Its soil is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and radium, as well as toxic pesticides such as DDT leaked from nearby cotton fields. This has been linked to many problems in the region – above-average rates of anemia, tuberculosis, kidney and liver disease; reduced life expectancy (51 years, down from 64); and high levels of infertility and Reproductive issues.
There, local authorities tried a different remedy: restore the lake by reducing water withdrawal from one of its tributaries, the Syr Darya. They have had moderate success.
Aside from the physical afflictions, vanishing lakes can also affect the mental health of the residents who live near them. “Younger people definitely talk about short-term stress, worrying about things like ‘How are things going for me healthily?'” Loera says of the people she spoke to in Eastern Coachella Valley. ”
“But also thinking about this in the long-term — ‘I want to go to college and do something for my community, but do I really want to stay here and continue to live here? “
Which is why Loera and her team at Leadership Advisor, as well as other popular organizations such as Comet Civico del Valle And the Coachella Valley Alianzaand spend time meeting with affected community members, engaging them in efforts to save nearby lakes, listening to their health concerns, and advising on protection measures.
The advice includes taking “safety measures when air quality is not good,” Pinkerton says. For example: staying indoors, driving with air conditioning on, and wearing an N95 protective mask.
“And just being aware of your body,” he says. “If you find yourself coughing, if your eyes are irritated or watery, if you start to feel tired or your heart is beating fast—these are all symptoms that should tell you: ‘Okay, maybe it’s time for me to either put that mask on or go inside and enjoy it easy. “.
Despite the challenges ahead, Loira remains optimistic. “The thing that’s impressive to me is that the community around the Salton Sea is really resilient,” she says. “They are really helpful. They see the lake as part of their home.”