The landlocked body of water is one of the world's biggest inland seas and at 226ft (69m) below sea level one of the lowest places on earth. It has appeared and disappeared several times over the ages, but was re-created in 1905 when the Colorado River, which runs to the east, overwhelmed an irrigation system and flooded a basin called the Salton Trough. For 18 months, according to parks.ca.gov, the entire volume of the river flowed into the basin and by the time it was halted in 1907, a lake 45 miles long and 20 miles wide had formed.
Spotting an opportunity to make fast bucks, developers moved in during the 50s and 60s and it blossomed into a tourist hotspot, with settlements, resorts, hotels and attractions popping up left, right and center. However, due to farm runoff, the lake became increasingly toxic and salty, fish and birds began dying and the settlements became like ghost towns. It was hoped around 40,000 people would live on the Salton Sea's shores. But homeowners tend not to like environmental disasters and today the population is between five and 10,000, though the area does attract, in normal times, up to one million visitors a year for bird-watching and water sports.
Lennon told MailOnline Travel that he'd 'always heard so much about the place', so he decided to head out on a last-minute road trip in 2019 with a friend and explore the area for himself. He describes Salton Sea, which he has visited several times since, as a 'mysterious and surreal place' with an 'eerie calm'.
He added: 'It sounds a little cliched, but I wanted to show through my images that there can be beauty in death. Salton Sea has a bad rep because of the environmental catastrophe and it is almost a "dead" lake. But seen at the right time of day, especially just before sunset, the light is just incredibly beautiful. Even when shooting in black and white, there's a stark beauty to be seen.' Scroll down to soak up some of Salton Sea's salt-weathered scenery for yourself...
The Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked body of water that has a high concentration of salts in Riverside and Imperial counties, on the San Andreas Fault at the southern end of the U.S. state of California. It lies within the Salton Trough that stretches to the Gulf of California in Mexico. The lake was created by inflow of water from the Colorado River in 1905. Beginning in 1900, an irrigation canal was dug from the Colorado River to the old Alamo River channel to provide water to the Imperial Valley for farming. The headgates and canals sustained a buildup of silt, so a series of cuts was made in the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow. Water from spring floods broke through a canal head-gate diverting a portion of the river flow into the Salton Basin for two years before repairs were completed. The water in the formerly dry lake bed created the modern lake that is about 15 by 35 miles (24 by 56 km).
The lake would have dried up, but farmers used generous amounts of Colorado River water and let the excess flow into the lake. In the 1950s and into the '60s, the area became a resort destination, and communities grew with hotels and vacation homes. Birdwatching was also popular as the wetlands were a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway.
In the 1970s, scientists issued warnings that the lake would continue to shrink and become more inhospitable to wildlife. In the 1980s, contamination from farm runoff promoted the outbreak and spread of diseases. Massive die-offs of the avian populations have occurred, especially after the loss of several species of fish on which they depend. Salinity rose so high that large fish kills occurred, often blighting the beaches of the sea with their carcasses. Tourism was drastically reduced.
After 1999, the lake began to shrink as local agriculture used the water more efficiently so less runoff flowed into the lake. As the lake bed became exposed, the winds sent clouds of toxic dust into nearby communities. Smaller amounts of dust reached into the Los Angeles area and people there could sometimes smell an odor coming from the lake. The state is mainly responsible for fixing the problems, and California lawmakers pledged to fund air-quality management projects in conjunction with the signing of the 2003 agreement to send more water to coastal cities. Local, state, and federal bodies all had found minimal success dealing with the dust, dying wildlife, and other problems for which warnings had been issued decades before. At the beginning of 2018 local agencies declared an emergency and along with the state funded and developed the Salton Sea Management Program. After a slow start and some small projects, construction started on a $206.5 million project in early 2021 on the delta of the New River, creating ponds and wetlands on the southern shore of the lake.
In 2020, Palm Springs Life magazine summarized the ecological situation as "Salton Sea derives its fame as the biggest environmental disaster in California history".
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the communities expanded as the area's reputation as a resort destination and sport fishery grew. Hotels and yacht clubs were built on the shore along with homes and schools. Resorts in communities like Bombay Beach hosted entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and Bing Crosby. Yacht clubs held parties at night and golf courses provided recreation. Many people came for boating activities such as water skiing and fishing as stocked fish proliferated. Lakeshore communities grew as vacation homes were built. More than 1.5 million visitors visited annually at the peak.
In the 1970s, scientists issued warnings about the changes coming to this lake with no outlet. Studies, that started in the 1960s, found a complex problem for which any remediation would be expensive. The Imperial Valley has about five hundred thousand acres (200,000 ha) of farmland for which flood irrigation is typical. Water from the Colorado River is diverted near Yuma, Arizona, into the 82-mile (132 km) All-American Canal. The canal runs west along the Mexican border and then north into 1,700 miles (2,700 km) of irrigation channels that crisscross the farms.
Gravity carries the agricultural runoff downhill through the New and Alamo rivers to the lake. The water is full of salts, selenium, and fertilizers (mainly nitrates). As it drains through the soil, the water leaches out ancient salt deposits that also raise the salinity. Evaporation in the desert heat further concentrates the salt. The transformation of the lake made it increasingly inhospitable to wildlife. Before the end of the decade, fish started dying off and bird populations declined.
In the late 1970s a series of heavy tropical storms caused the water level to rapidly rise and flood its banks. The surrounding towns and businesses were severely damaged, many beyond repair. In 1976, Hurricane Kathleen inundated the lakeshore communities and put Bombay Beach completely underwater. Tourism was drastically reduced, and many of the resorts and associated infrastructure were abandoned. The state began to issue odor advisories as the lake began to stink.
In the 1990s, the shores were littered with dead fish as the lake had gotten so salty that large die-offs occurred. Fertilizers in the runoff caused massive blooms of algae. When storms churned the lake, botulism spread among the dying tilapia, which were eaten by the birds. During a four month long period in 1996, 14,000 birds died from eating the fish, nearly 10,000 of which were pelicans. The carcasses were burned in an incinerator 24 hours a day for weeks. The resulting news coverage conveyed a simplified story that implied the lake was a toxic catastrophe filled with water that could be deadly. As a congressman in 1995, former mayor of nearby Palm Springs, Sonny Bono, advocated for attention to the problems. His wife and some politicians took up the cause as a form of tribute to Bono after his death in a 1998 skiing accident.Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-372). In 1999, the lake began to recede dramatically. The dropping water level stranded many of the remaining boat docks, residences, and businesses. Water-management priorities were changing including diverting water from agricultural areas to cities. The U.S. Department of the Interior prepared a draft Environmental Impact Report in compliance with the Reclamation Act and working in partnership with the Salton Sea Authority. A Strategic Science Plan and the Bureau of Reclamation's Alternatives Appraisal Report were also added to the voluminous studies of the lake. Before the legislative and scientific recommendations were implemented, priorities shifted away from activities at the lake after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer agreement in US history. Much of its water allocation would go to communities along the California coast at a profit. With a 45-year term, the Quantification Settlement Agreement was a means for the San Diego County Water Authority and other districts to obtain additional water for the growing communities they serve. Local agriculture became more efficient at using water which resulted in the shoreline retreating as less run-off flowed into the lake.