Southern California Stinks: Do We Blame Dead Fish?

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A mass of dead fish floating in Salton Sea.

If you want the definition of an “ill wind” just talk to a resident of the greater Los Angeles area about how things smelled around those parts this week, especially on Monday.

A putrid stench, described in the Los Angeles Times as “unprecedented,” wafted from Ventura County to Palm Springs, swamping the 911 call center with complaints and sending health officials all over Southern California in search of the culprit.

While not yet confirmed, and certainly not agreed upon unanimously, the leading theory blames the smell on a large-scale fish die-off in the Salton Sea—a shallow, salty body of water sitting 227 feet below sea level—caused by the previous week’s heat wave. The decomposing fish likely settled to the bottom of the lake, but strong winds over the weekend would have whipped up the newly minted odor and sent it northwest to the Los Angeles area. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is taking air samples from various points in the region in an attempt to confirm the theory.

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The fish die-off is a fairly regular event, but this would be the first time the smell of the Salton Sea would reach all the way to L.A., more than 100 miles away. The area doesn’t have a pleasant smelling tradition, however. An old salt sink that filled with water during a Colorado River flood in 1905, the shallow 360-square-mile sea recedes every year, revealing such odiferous features as exposed boiling mud pots and sulfur dioxide steams. Mix in a side of decomposing fish and anyone with a sensitive sniffer would steer clear.

Even with a few skeptics, the high winds on Sunday night and the prevailing winds the following day combined with a usual suspect (dead fish and sulfur dioxide) to give air quality researchers probable cause to blame the Salton Sea for the L.A. stench.

“That atmospheric flow would bring the smell up from the Salton Sea into the L.A. Basin here,” Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, told the Los Angeles Times. “This was an ill wind that dropped from the Coachella Valley into the Inland Empire cul-de-sac and boogied west … into the San Gabriel Valley and L.A. County. The stink is normal around the Salton Sea. The strong winds are the unique occurrence that moved it into our ‘hood.'”

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