Haboob heightens air quality concerns as toxic Salton Sea particles blow through valley
A massive dust storm slammed into the valley Thursday night, sending particles into the air that are dangerous to people's health.
The valley showed an Air Quality Index of 500 Friday, the maximum level, indicating hazardous conditions. Experts say the drying up Salton Sea only made the air worse to breathe.
The wall of dust was a direct hit for the Coachella Valley Thursday with its ominous approach captured by weather watchers from the Salton Sea to Palm Springs.
At Villagefest, vendors held down their merchandise tents. People's homes, roadways and golf courses were blanketed in a thick cover of dusty particles.
"I woke up and I saw clouds of dust covering, hovering all over our communities. And it doesn't look very promising," said Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea program director for conservation group Audubon California. He said climate change is exacerbating conditions and could make haboob phenomena more frequent.
"the first thing that came to my mind was, 'What happened to all this kids, and especially the people that are already dealing with existing conditions such as asthma and COPD,'" Ruiz said.
As the Salton Sea evaporates, Ruiz added, concern is growing about toxic contaminants from farm water runoff in the playa dust.
Without intervention, it's expected to continue to shrink, spreading toxic dust across the Coachella Valley and beyond.
"Heavy metals are present in the sediment, such as arsenic, copper, selenium, DDT," Ruiz said. "So when these events happen, these high wind velocities are going to pick up all the particles and make them airborne. And they can travel far distances, as far as L.A. County."
David Lo, Senior Associate Dean for Research in the UC Riverside School of Medicine, said asthma is significantly correlated with living near the Salton Sea. He said as the dust spreads throughout the valley Friday, people should take caution.
"It's the range of particles that can get into your lung, especially the smaller particles that are going to do the most harm in your lungs," Lo said. "If you have that face mask, you should be wearing it."
Officials said events like Thursday's haboob demonstrate why the Salton Sea needs to be restored quickly. The 10 year plan and other efforts by state and federal leaders, they said, must be implemented soon.
Water cutbacks from the Colorado River are expected to affect the Salton Sea drastically, causing shorelines to recede at much faster rates. Wind events will make dust storms and haboobs even more common, officials said.