Lakebed dust is a worry in Utah. For California’s Salton Sea, it’s a full-blown problem
Feb 12, 2024, 5:55 AM | Updated: 12:52 pm
(Kristin Miller, Deseret News)
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.
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.
“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.”