The Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water, a vast oasis that stretches some 35 miles between the Coachella and Imperial valleys. It’s a place of uncommon natural beauty—a quiet sanctuary surrounded by inhospitable desert.
But things are not quite what they seem at the Salton Sea. The lake is shrinking. The fish are dying. The air reeks. And the once-thriving communities and tourist resorts along the shore are mostly abandoned.
The Salton Sea has become one of the most vexing and complicated ecological problems in the American West. Dwindling inflows and rising salinity are transforming the place from a peaceful refuge to a toxic wasteland.
The shoreline is receding so fast that in some areas boat ramps and fishing piers now stand on dry land, thousands of feet from the water’s edge. As the sea evaporates, toxic particles in the lakebed are exposed to the air. When the wind kicks up, the particles become airborne and are carried far afield, posing serious health risks to people throughout southern California.
For decades lawmakers largely ignored the problem. But as the Salton Sea continues to dry up at an alarming rate—a process that will accelerate next year as the mitigation water feeding the lake is diverted to nearby cities—time is running out.
In June 2016, California governor Jerry Brown earmarked $80.5 million dollars to begin restoration work at the sea. But there is still no consensus about how to address the problem, much less an action plan for actually solving it.
My photographs of the Salton Sea are a work in progress. They attempt to capture the stark beauty of the place while also documenting some of the effects of environmental devastation and decline. They were taken over the course of a decade, beginning in the spring of 2006.
The toned black-and-white photographs presented here (see link below) were originally prepared for a water exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. Others have appeared in books and magazines. I’m currently at work on an expanded series of color photographs from the Salton Sea with the working title, “Vanishing Oasis.”
View Photoessay →