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SANTA ANA, Calif. — A strong rotten egg smell had Southern Californians plugging their noses and crying foul Monday as air quality investigators scrambled to determine if the sulfurous scent was coming from the Salton Sea.
Investigators from the South Coast Air Quality Management District spread investigators all over the region in an attempt to track the stench after being flooded with 200 complaints since midnight from across much of the district's 10,000 square miles, said Barry Wallerstein, executive for the agency.
Wallerstein said "several factors" indicate the odor could be coming from the Salton Sea, a 376-square-mile saltwater lake about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles, but there is no definitive evidence yet of this or any other cause.
"The odor was extremely intense," said Janis Dawson of the Salton Sea Authority. "We actually thought that somebody had an accident, a broken sewage main, that's how strong it was."
The dying sea, a major resting stop for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, has been plagued by increasing salinity. Created in 1905 when floodwaters broke through a Colorado River irrigation canal, it's expected to shrink significantly by 2018 and become even saltier.
The sea had a fish die-off within the past week and that, combined with strong storms in the area late Sunday, could have churned up the water and unleashed bacteria from the sea floor that caused the stench, said Dawson.
The massive thunderstorm complex moved from Mexico over the area Sunday night, with wind gusts up to 60 mph and widespread dust storms.
"We were watching it from the office on our satellite radar and it was huge, one of the largest that any of us have ever seen in probably 10 years," said Mark Moede, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Diego.
Wallerstein acknowledged the storm could be a factor in the smell's spread but said it's "highly unusual" for odors to remain powerful up to 150 miles from their source.
The smell doesn't pose any health hazards, but it generated an explosion of quips on social media from Riverside County to the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Jose Chavez, a 28-year-old comedian from San Fernando, tweeted: "The Valley is starting to smell like rotten eggs. In an unrelated note, Febreeze sales are through the roof in the San Fernando Valley."
Chavez was leaving the grocery store when he was overwhelmed by the odor, he said in a phone interview.
"My first thought was that maybe one of the eggs I bought was rotted and I got back home and the smell was still there so then I started to think it was me so I changed my clothes," he said. "It was very pungent."
Jack Crayon, an environmental scientist at California's Department of Fish and Game, said he recognized the smell as the typical odor when winds churn up the sea's waters and pull gases from the decomposition of fish or other organisms up to the surface.
He said the phenomenon typically occurs a few times a year in the area surrounding the lake, but it was unusual for the smell to spread so far.
Julie Hutchinson, battalion chief at California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Riverside, said heavy cloud cover that's been lingering over the area has trapped the smell in the suburbs east of Los Angeles.
The smell was reported as far away as Palmdale and Lancaster, more than 150 miles north of the Salton Sea.
"It's just not able to evaporate up into the atmosphere," Hutchinson said. "The moisture and thick heavy air is keeping it in the lower ends of the valleys."
The smell was starting to dissipate Monday as winds picked up speed, she said.
The Salton Sea is about one-third saltier than the ocean and sits 200 feet below sea level.
It relies on water that seeps down from nearby farms, and it has been plagued with fish die-offs that result from low oxygen levels in the water and receding shorelines.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed to this report.