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Sunday Special Report: Toxic dust from Salton Sea could complicate coronavirus recovery

Health experts say evaporating lake already contributes to local respiratory illnesses - NBC's Gary Strieker reports

IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. (KYMA, KECY/NBC News) - Health experts say the Salton Sea poses a health risk to the residents who live around it, especially in the age of coronavirus. The lake's continued evaporation is already making Valley residents sick, and it could make virus patients even sicker.

Farmlands in Imperial County use less water from the Colorado River than ever before. Most of the river's water now goes to cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. That means less irrigation water drains into the Salton Sea. It's rapidly shrinking.

“This is a problem that will affect air quality.” said Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea Program Director for California Audubon.

For decades, irrigation water has carried chemical fertilizers from the surrounding croplands into the lakebed.

Experts say the Salton Sea's exposed lake bed sends harmful dust into the air and into surrounding communities.

"As the lake is receding, it will expose a lot of lake bed, and with that the sediment is gonna become airborne and it will affect more than 650,000 people who live in proximity to this body of water." said Ruiz.

"So those small particles can get into your lungs when you re breathing air in this area and that's where the impacts come to human health." explains Jessica Humes, with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

Imperial County's children are already feeling the effects of the dust.

"Imperial County already has 3 times the average of childhood asthma. As particles get into the air, it creates a serious problem. More people in the hospital, more people are getting sick, so it really needs a lot of attention." said Bob Shettler with the IID.

The dust also exacerbates symptoms of coronavirus. The IID is trying a variety of methods to mitigate the particles.

The IID hopes furrows like these will help reduce the spread of particles.

"We've cut deep furrows perpendicular to the Salton Sea, and as the wind comes across, the dust particles, some of them at least, will fall into these furrows, bringing the level of contamination down." said Shettler.

Until officials find the most effective way to clear the air, people who live near the Salton Sea should try to stay away from the withering lake and it's dusty shores.

Locals say they try to avoid the Salton Sea.

"My impression has always been to steer clear, you don't want to live near here because people are getting asthma, and it smells really bad." said Imperial County resident Camilla Bautista.

California's 2020 state budget includes $47-million for environmental projects in the Valley. $19-million is earmarked specifically for the Salton Sea. The remainder will go to cleaning up the New River, which has carried industrial waste from Mexico into the United States for decades.

Imperial County / Top Stories / Video

NBC News

Lisa Sturgis

Lisa Sturgis recently returned to KYMA as its Digital Content Director, but she has a long history with the Desert Southwest.

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