Great Salt Lake Collaborative

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Sitting on the couch next to his mom inside their mobile home in Mecca, California, 5-year-old Ruben Mandujano lets out a gurgled cough while playing on a tablet. The phlegm stuck in his throat is noticeable. But the constant cough is something he’s used to.

His mother, Rosa Mandujano, said he came down with some kind of illness about “eight out of the 12 months of the year” when he was younger. Now, after various surgeries, an asthma diagnosis, medications and a nebulizer, Mandujano estimates her son is sick “five months out of the 12.”

The family has grown accustomed to the frequent infections. Both of their children suffer from asthma. A cupboard in their kitchen is dedicated to dozens of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Mandujano said her son’s problems get worse when the air quality is awful — another common issue for Coachella and Imperial Valley residents. Mecca, where the Mandujano family lives, is enveloped by agricultural fields and a short distance from the north shore of the declining Salton Sea, a saline lake facing similar turmoil as Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Dust storms have become the norm being so close to agricultural fields and the Salton Sea, she said. Winds reaching 75 miles per hour whip through predominantly low-income and immigrant communities. The dust gets so bad, Mandujano said, that “you can’t see what’s in front of you.”

With the exposed Salton Sea lakebed and the loose dirt and pesticides from the surrounding fields, Mandujano said it’s rare to find a Coachella Valley resident who doesn’t suffer from allergies or asthma. But the impact of the bad air quality and dust storms is worse for some, like Ruben.

Rosa Mandujano comforts her son Ruben Mandujano, who is sick, at their home near the Salton Sea and Mecca, California, on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. Ruben, who is autistic and has asthma, has a hard time fighting infections. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“His asthma and his allergies combine, it’s a ticking bomb for him,” Mandujano said. “He says that everything hurts. His ears hurt, his eyes hurt, his nose hurts. He doesn’t even want to get touched.”

When the phlegm won’t leave his throat, Ruben has to use a nebulizer, which circulates well-known asthma medications like Albuterol or Pulmicort through a mask. Mandujano said she hooks her son up to the nebulizer about 121 times a year.

“He hates it because it makes him throw up because it gathers all of the phlegm,” Mandujano said. “He knows he’s going to start throwing up. So he just says, ‘Mommy, I don’t like this,’ and keeps trying to take it off.”

While Rosa Mandujano fights to keep her family healthy, California state leaders, scientists and community advocates are trying to identify solutions to clean up the air, especially as it pertains to the dust accumulated from the Salton Sea. Like the Great Salt Lake, there are toxins in the sediment of the exposed lake bed.

Scattered near the roughly 27,000 acres of exposed Salton Sea playa are lines of hay bales.

Charlie Diamond, a researcher with the Salton Sea Task Force at the University of California Riverside, said it’s a “dust suppression project” aimed to “break up the flow of air right at the ground level.” The goal, Diamond said, is for the hay bales to “suppress the dust production or emission.”

Hay bales used for dust mitigation in a Salton Sea Management Program project are pictured on approximately 68 acres near Bombay Beach, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. Some corresponding seeding to establish vegetation was attempted during last year’s rains, but further planting is on hold until a water source is confirmed. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

During high wind events, Diamond said toxins and other sediments like gypsum and salt get “blown around in the surrounding communities, (and) cause a lot of problems with respiratory health, especially in young folks.”

Usually, Diamond said, the hay bales are planted with native vegetation, which the shoreline severely lacks. That acts as another dust suppressant. But “these projects are really contingent on some external source of freshwater,” Diamond added, and that’s the crux of the issue — in the arid climate, there isn’t enough fresh water making its way to the Salton Sea to begin with.

With an exorbitant amount of dried lakebed, it’s unlikely hay bales will prevent all the dust from pummeling community members.

“That’s not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid,” Diamond said.

Local officials are working on other remedies. The Imperial Irrigation District, which oversees the hay bale projects, is also planting and germinating natural vegetation near the shoreline. Environmental specialist Ross Wilson said the district is using groundwater to hydrate the plants.

Wilson said there isn’t a way to “necessarily make less dust,” but the hope is the natural vegetation “catches the dust” like the hay bales and results in better air quality.

The agency also uses a Portable In-Situ Wind ERosion Lab, also known as a PI-SWERL, to figure out what exactly is in the dust. The device, which resembles an industrial floor polisher, replicates wind speeds and collects air quality measurements. Wilson added it also tracks which areas produce the most emissions.

Dust lingers after OHVs drove by in West Shores, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“No one has the money to just mitigate the entire sea. So if we can dial down which areas actually are emissive and which areas are the problem, then we can really nail down our resources to those specific areas,” he said.

If more water isn’t funneled into the Salton Sea, the Imperial Irrigation District predicts upward of 70,000 acres of bare lakebed within the next 10 years.

The Great Salt Lake is up against the same fate as the Salton Sea when it comes to dust.

Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed noted in the state’s first Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan that the lake’s low water levels are increasing dust emissions. He added the accumulation from the estimated 800 square miles of the exposed lake bed poses a public health risk and is causing snow to melt approximately 17 days sooner than normal.

Steed told KUER’s “RadioWest” that he believes dust from the Great Salt Lake is “going to be the hardest one (problem) to solve.”

“When you have an exposed lake bed that weathers over time, which has happened over years, you see additional dust days and problems with PM 2.5 and PM 10,” he said. “And we know that we’ve had a problem (with air quality) along the Wasatch Front especially.”

The Utah Office of Legislative Auditor General highlighted in the Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan that it would cost a minimum of $1.5 billion to keep the lake’s dust at bay, along with $15 million each year for ongoing maintenance.

Steed recognizes the price tag associated with dust mitigation. In an ideal world, “the lowest cost alternative” is lifting the Great Salt Lake’s water levels so the crust “keeps that dust in place.”

Utah is just beginning to grapple with its looming dust problem, but for Rosa Mandujano in California, the dust is enough to make her contemplate if it’s worth staying in her hometown. Her two kids love to be outdoors, but the air quality often triggers adverse reactions, especially for Ruben, forcing them to remain inside.

“I’ve talked to my husband and said if we get a good job opportunity and we would have to move out of the state, I mean, let’s go,” Mandujano said. “I know it’s scary because my family’s here. All his family’s here, but I’ve seen friends done it. It’s nothing out of the world. You have to start somewhere.”

KSL-TV’s Alex Cabrero contributed to this report