The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. It was accidentally created when the Colorado River burst its irrigation dikes and flooded the Salton Basin from 1905-1907. For decades it was a thriving freshwater lake with hopes of becoming an inland desert sea resort. Today, however, the Salton Sea’s future looks bleak: the shores are lined with decaying ruins, the waters are receding, and the fish are dying from rising salinity.
Back when it was formed in the early 1900s, the Salton Sea brought new life into California’s Colorado desert. The area soon became an important stop for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, and in 1930 the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was created. In the early ’40s, the Enola Gay’s crew ran secret test bombing runs at the sea in preparation for their Hiroshima mission. Fish were introduced into the waters, and sport fishing became a huge draw in the ’60s: yacht clubs, golf courses, hotels and housing developments started springing up all around the sea. The area was fast becoming a marine-desert playground for the rich – until the ’70s, when tropical storms and heavy runoff levels flooded the shores, leaving the abandoned homes and businesses coated with salty muck.
Flooding and an unpredictable shoreline spelled doom for commercial development along the edges of the Salton Sea, but water quality is also a huge issue. Agricultural drain water from the Imperial Valley makes up 75% of the inflow to the Salton Sea – without it, the sea would dry up. As these mineral-rich runoff waters collect and subsequently evaporate, the salts are concentrated and, like all landlocked bodies of water with no outlet, the sea becomes more saline. The Salton Sea is now over 30% more salty than the Pacific Ocean, and its salinity rises about 1% annually. Freshwater fish are long gone and only the saline-tolerant tilapia remain, but they suffer regular die-offs. Once thought to be caused by summer algal blooms, the annual fish kills are now blamed on spontaneous releases of large amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Whatever the cause, the result is disastrous: on August 4, 1999 for example, a record 7.6 million fish died and washed up on shore. Furthermore, the area’s birds suffer fatal bouts of avian botulism, having caught the bacterial strain from the sick and dying fish they eat.
In spite of the deteriorating environment, some folks still make their homes around the Salton Sea. The former Camp Dunlap Naval Reservation is now known as “Slab City”, where people living off the grid park their trailers on the concrete slabs of the old base’s buildings. Nearby, retirees winter in RV communities built around naturally-occurring hot springs.
In the mostly-empty towns that still dot the coast, some residents simply love the Salton Sea and will never leave. Others want to relocate, but can’t afford to. Some invest in buying up the vacant lots, certain of another real estate boom around the corner (a recent campaign trumpeted the area as “the last frontier” of inexpensive land in southern California).
Over the years, many studies have been conducted to address the tremendously complicated issues surrounding the Salton Sea. The high salinity is killing the fish and left unchecked, saline levels will only continue to rise. What’s more, water is in high demand in southern California, and the Imperial Valley is set to transfer a large portion of its agricultural runoff water rights to San Diego County, seriously reducing the inflow to the sea by 2018. Without the agricultural wastewater, the sea would dry up, the fish would all die, and the over 400 recorded bird species would have no food or habitat. Additionally, as the dry lakebed’s sediments are exposed, human health would be threatened: airborne dust particulates are expected to cause serious air quality issues for populations nearby, including the half a million people in the Coachella Valley. Various plans to preserve the ecosystem and restore the sea back into a healthy resource have been proposed, but so far the substantial funding required has not been committed. Although $47 million was released for use during Period One of the Salton Sea’s restoration plan, long-term funding requirements are estimated at over $8 billion. California’s current financial situation does not bode well for a turnaround anytime soon.
As a photographer, I was immediately drawn to the Salton Sea’s paradoxical beauty when I first visited in 2004. Witnessing nature’s reclamation of this abandoned paradise, I was compelled to visually capture this toxic poetry of transformation.
As a citizen, the more I worked on this project, the more interested I became in its ecological, environmental and social aspects. The Salton Sea is fascinating, but it is moreover quite troubling. Due to the scarcity of fresh water in California, the Salton Sea risks becoming another dry Owens Lake, threatening local air quality and the nearby agricultural industry. This story is important to us all, if only to serve as a grave reminder of the possible consequences of human intervention in the natural landscape.
I have been visiting and documenting the Salton Sea and its changes annually since my first visit in 2004, as well as leading photography workshops to this area for the past few years. This work has been exhibited through solo and group exhibitions at galleries in both Canada and the USA as well as various publications; see “Exhibitions” for more information and detailed listings.
– Sandi Wheaton