"The main thing we have to worry about is how to get phosphorous out of the water coming in," says Sherrie Nuyen, special project coordinator for the Desert Shores Improvement Association. Desert Shores is a community on the western shoreline of the Salton Sea, east of the Anza-Borrego Desert. "When [phosphorous] gets into the sea, it helps algae grow, and when algae grows, there's no oxygen in the algae, and fish go towards there thinking 'food,' but when they go in there, they can't breathe, and they die." Nuyen has helped organize the second biannual "Salton Sea Fish Cleanup" taking place on Saturday, November 3. "The thing that bothers me is that the State of California claims that the fish belong to them when they're alive, and if the fishermen go out and hook them, they're still the State's fish -- you can't net them if they're alive. But when the fish die, they don't belong to the State anymore, and it's our problem," says Nuyen. By "our," she means area residents.
At the March cleanup, 85 volunteers filled three large Dumpsters with dead fish. "We've got a large population of tilapia in the sea...about the only thing other than pupfish," says Dan Cain, principal development specialist for the Salton Sea Authority. "At night, when the sun goes down, often the fish will have a hard time finding oxygen." As to the government's refusal to contribute to cleanup efforts, Cain says, "Nobody really wants to take the authority to go in and do something about getting [dead fish] off the beaches and reducing the smell and the flies. It's not a real pleasant atmosphere when you have thousands of dead fish."
"Around the sea, we have the highest amount of asthma in the State of California," says Nuyen. "I would say maybe five or six out of ten people have breathing problems here." She attributes this to the hydrogen sulfide sink located underneath the sea's north end. Hydrogen sulfide, a flammable gas that smells like rotten eggs, can result from decomposition of organic matter. According to the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, hydrogen sulfide can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat, as well as difficulty breathing. A high concentration can result in loss of consciousness and even death. Nuyen worries that if water is drawn from the sea to be transferred elsewhere that the area above the sink will become shallow or dry, causing health conditions to worsen, conditions that could reach as far as Palm Springs -- "winds can lift [hydrogen sulfide] up and take it, along with dust and sand," Nuyen says. The sea is currently 35 miles by 15 miles at its widest and has a maximum depth of 51 feet.
The Salton Sea is 300 feet from Nuyen's front porch. "There are days when it's blue, days when it's green with blue around it, and days that it has been red. When it's red, you know you're having a major fish die-off." The red color is characteristic of blooming algae, indicating a shortage of oxygen in the water. When the fish die they float to the surface, and the smell can be unbearable. "About six months ago they pulled out these aerators, called SolarBees," says Nuyen. "They're solar-powered reservoir circulators that sit on top of the water. It helps alleviate the smell."
"The goal of the project was to see if we could reduce the odors coming from backwater areas where you don't get any oxygen," says Cain. "When the water goes stagnant in the summertime, the odors can be horrendous. But we didn't have any funding and had to rent the units. Nobody could really come up with the money to keep them in there, so they took them out." This in spite of the fact that, says Cain, "the people who lived down there claimed it worked."
Nuyen confirms that the aerators were successful. "We cannot afford them. We're looking at five units at maybe $475,000 [total]. When I first came down here, you would gag to go outside. But they put those [aerators] in there, and you could tell the difference; they really worked."
After the SolarBees were removed, the Salton Sea Authority initiated the fish cleanup. "The authority came and said, 'There are going to be little mini die-offs, but if we get the fish up off the shoreline, you're not going to have the smell or health problems,'" Nuyen says. "Die-offs can happen pretty much at any time, but we figured out it happens mostly in spring and right before winter." Some volunteers have added their names to an emergency-contact list in case there is a major die-off between the biannual fish cleanups. After the cleanup, fish carcasses are taken to the California Bio-Mass, Inc., an organics recycling company five miles away from the cleanup site. -- Barbarella
Salton Sea Fish Cleanup
Saturday, November 3
6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
West Shores Senior Center
1375 State Route 22
Desert Shores, Salton Sea
Cost: Free (seeking volunteers -- please call in advance, light breakfast and lunch provided)
Info: 760-564-4888 or www.saltonsea.ca.gov