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As Heat Dries Land And Lake, Asthma Fears Rise In Imperial County

Adrian Florido

Imperial County, east of San Diego, has one of the worst childhood asthma problems in California.

And if you step outside, you can get an idea why. This is a desert, a hot, dry, dusty place. And parts of it are getting drier and dustier.

Agricultural fields sprawl in all directions here, and they depend on the share of water that the Imperial Valley gets from the Colorado River.

But in the last few years the Imperial Irrigation District, which manages the county’s water, has been selling some of it to thirsty Los Angeles and San Diego.

In order to do that, it’s paying farmers to stop growing crops. Tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land are turning into vast fields of dirt, dried up by the intense heat.

When winds pick up here, this valley turns into a giant dust bowl.

And that fallowed land is having a secondary effect -- one that local activists and researchers fear could only aggravate the respiratory problems of people living in this area.

Much of the water that flows into the nearby Salton Sea comes from agricultural runoff, but that volume is on the decline because that water is being diverted from fields to urban areas to the west.

The expansive Salton Sea is evaporating at a stunning pace, exposing wide areas of pesticide-laced seabed to those strong desert winds.

“The impact of this exposed sea bed and the dust clouds that could accumulate are going to just sweep through this valley as though it was just leaves on the ground,” said Luis Olmedo, a local environmental activist.

He drove me along the main road that cuts through the several small cities that make up the Imperial Valley, pointing out the various sources of air pollution he feels are aggravating this area’s asthma problem.

There’s the fallow land, the burning of agricultural fields, the pesticide use, unpaved roads, and the popularity of off-road vehicles.

He says the county’s rules for regulating “fugitive dust” are weak, and that the constant dust storms that form over fields are evidence.

“Although some of these lands might be set aside for fallowing, some of them may not be doing what they’re supposed to be doing to keep the dust down,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Highway Administration recently slapped Imperial County with sanctions because its pollution rules did not meet federal standards.

The county has settled with the EPA, and is now in the process of revising those rules. It plans to add further controls, like requiring farmers to better manage their fallowed fields and placing limits on the use of unpaved roads that kick up dust.

“We’re very confident that we’ll be able to bring cleaner air to our locals,” said Reyes Romero, an air pollution control officer for the county.

In the meantime, the residents of the Imperial Valley develop novel ways of coping with the poor air quality.

On a scorching 110-degree day in the city of Imperial recently, about a dozen kids were running around an indoor playground.

“I wanted to create a kind of indoor facility where we could control the climate a little bit, but also be able to provide a dustless facility,” said Rosie Nava, who founded The Family Treehouse.

The air conditioning is a big draw. But for Nava, more important is keeping this place free of dust.

“It is sanitized and disinfected every day. We clean for four hours,” she said.

Luis Velez, Luis Olmedo’s fifth-grade son, said he sees the effects of the air pollution at his school every day.

“Yeah a lot of my friends have asthma and when it’s a windy day they have to stay inside,” he said. “And our nurse, she has a drawer like, full of inhalers and asthma treatments.”

Later that day, as Olmedo and I drove down the main road, we spotted a dust storm forming above an empty agricultural field.

The wind was so strong that it kicked up dirt all around us, so thick as too mostly obscure the view of a field on the other side of the road. The entire area was covered in a thick layer of dust.

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