Like a mirage floating on the desert floor, the Salton Sea’s ethereal beauty belies the trouble beneath its still, reflective surface. The sea itself is emblematic of some of the worst outcomes of human intervention, and as such, may also present opportunities for some of our most dramatic and creative solutions. 

Pink Chair, Salton Sea Beach, 2013

The Salton Sea is located on one of the most important flyways in North America, providing critical habitat for more than 400 species of resident and migrating birds. As water elevation continues to decline and salinity continues to increase, the resulting degeneration in the habitat the birds and fish depend on would cause an eventual collapse of the fishery.  Salinity in the sea is currently 30% higher than the ocean. 

Defunct Deep Water Marina, Bombay Beach, CA, 2012

Water stagnates in the channels of former marinas and yacht clubs along the shoreline of the Salton Sea.  California is experiencing unprecedented drought, and Imperial Valley water is now being diverted and sold to the city of San Diego.  As the water recedes, the Salton Sea may soon mirror the fate of the Owens Lake further north, where high winds have blown dust laden with heavy metals into populated areas.

Burning Fields Before Planting, Near Calipatria, CA, 2013

The Imperial Valley's economy is primarily based on agriculture.  Originally a desert, it is irrigated by an elaborate system of canals, dams and ditches that funnel water from the Colorado River in Arizona.  Major crops include alfalfa, lettuce, cotton, sugar beets and carrots, with multiple growing cycles throughout the year.

Measuring 525 square miles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake.  Located in southern California 85 miles east of San Diego and 60 miles north of the Mexican border, it lies 226 feet below sea level, almost as deep as Death Valley.  The San Andreas Fault literally runs beneath it, making it geologically unstable.   

An accident of irrigation, the present incarnation of the Salton Sea was formed in 1905 after engineers created canals to channel the Colorado River toward desert areas selected to be transformed into acreage for farming.  Breaching a dike after heavy rains and snowmelt, the mighty river flowed into the Salton Sink for two full years before finally being dammed.

Irrigation Canal, Imperial Valley near Westmoreland, CA, 2013

The vast Imperial Irrigation District includes over 1,400 miles of canal and 1,100 miles of pipeline.  This elaborately constructed system also conveys surface runoff and subsurface drainage from fields to the Salton Sea, which is a "designated repository for agricultural runoff with environmental considerations not yet solved."

Tilapia Washing Ashore at Dusk, Salton Sea Beach, 2013

Envisioned as a sport-fishing utopia, by 1951 the sea was stocked with 34,000 fish of 35 different species.  Eventually, only tilapia continued to adapt to fluctuating habitat conditions, and they now number in the millions.  Periodically there are massive die-offs due to lack of oxygen from algae blooms, and the stench of dead fish can be detected as far away as Los Angeles.

Moonrise, Slab City, CA, 2013

Slab City is a self-organized community situated on the concrete foundations of abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.  About 150 residents live there year round (the summer temperatures can soar to as high 120 degrees), but the winter population is estimated to swell to several thousand: "snowbirds" from Canada, retirees, outsider artists, drifters, and most recently, families who have lost their homes to foreclosure.  There is no electricity, running water, or public services of any kind, and residents pay no taxes or fees.

The Salton Sea’s shoreline is punctuated with the remnants of a more glorious era:  rusted hulks of hotels, dilapidated vacation homes and abandoned trailers are strewn across a landscape of desiccated mineral deposits and acres of fish carcasses--hardly the vision that drove early developers of the region.  After a boom period of tourism in the 1950’s and 60’s, and disastrous flooding from agricultural runoff in the 1990's, California’s largest lake is now shrinking.  Water from the Imperial Valley is being diverted to slake the thirst of San Diego, and environmentalists fear the massive lakebed will become a toxic dustbowl, the largest of its kind in the nation.

Abandoned House, Salton Sea Beach, CA, 2013

Hundreds of derelict houses, trailers, motels, yacht clubs and commercial buildings still dot the landscape surrounding the Salton Sea. Once touted as the "Riviera of the West" and the "New Palm Springs," these communities were never fully realized, and ultimately fell prey to the unrelenting and destructive rise and fall of sea levels. Many lots were never sold or built on, but signs bearing names like Aloha Drive and Paradise Way still mark the dreams of speculators and hapless investors.

Exposed Sea Bottom, Salton City, 2012

Today the Salton Sea is receding at an alarming rate, exposing soils saturated with minerals and "salts" in toxic concentrations.  Since its creation in 1905, the sea has received all the runoff  (including chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides) from the booming agricultural region to its south known as the Imperial Valley.

Descansas en Paz, near Borrego Springs, CA, 2013

A Shrine for Sergio Sanson is one of many similar sites in the area marking roadside fatalities.  This same arid landscape also bears the footprints of the many undocumented people crossing from Mexico to United States in search of jobs and a better life.  One humanitarian group services 150 water stations from March to October each year in an effort to stem the number of deaths from dehydration that occur in the Imperial Valley.

I use my 8”x10” view camera to make large format photographs that investigate the complexities of the historical, environmental, social, and political issues that collide in this surreal and remote section of the U.S.  I am interested in the long view of geologic time, harsh realities of life and work in an extreme environment, and the concept of the sublime.

Salvation Mountain, Colorado Desert, CA, 2013

Vermonter Leonard Knight (1931-2014) eventually settled in the Colorado Desert at the entrance to Slab City and devoted 27 years to building this straw and adobe structure covered with, by his own estimation, thousands of gallons of paint.  An homage to his religious conversion and desire to spread the gospel, Salvation Mountain has become a pilgrimage site for the devout as well as the merely curious.

Chicano-Mexicano Historical Timeline, Coachella, CA, 2013

This section of the Shady Lane Mural Project, painted by local artists, depicts Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), an American labor leader and civil rights activist who helped found the United Farm Workers Union.  Chavez led a struggle for fairness and dignity that included marches, boycotts, and hunger strikes as non-violent means to highlight the plight of migrant agricultural workers.  His actions also focused attention on health issues and the dangers of pesticides.  A nationwide upsurge of cultural pride and political action by Latinos are a major part of the Chavez legacy.

Residential Lots for Sale, Vista del Mar, CA, 2013

Reminiscent of the sales pitches to America's white middle class for building lots, vacation homes, and living the "American Dream" from decades long past, new signs have appeared in the landscape appealing to a different demographic.  The population of the Imperial Valley is now close to 75% Latino.

This work also engages the idea of reading landscape: how we enter new places and gradually learn to understand what is before us. Many clues to this endeavor are visual, but they are only the beginning of a process that raises questions about what we have done in the past and where we are heading. The Salton Sea is a unique lens through which we may discover more about our motives and our aspirations as we consider the quality of our environment and its capacity to sustain us. 

// Virginia Beahan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She received a BA degree in English from the Pennsylvania State University and an MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She has taught at Harvard University, Massachusetts College of Art, Wellesley College and is currently Senior Lecturer in Photography at Dartmouth College. She is a recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Mellon Foundation.  Her photographs have been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Hood Museum.  Professor Beahan has also received a Distinguished Lecturer Award from Dartmouth, as well as grants from the Leslie Foundation for the Humanities and the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.