Scott Campbell’s Salton Sea Photography

Salton Sea Photography…. Beautiful, destitute, decay, sanctuary, ancient lake, man-made lake, stinky, creepy, time-warp, hope, energy, past, future…

So many words come to mind when I travel to the Salton Sea on a photographic tour.  From some photographer’s perspectives, the Salton Sea is rich in creepy beauty, almost like a movie set that is real.  Yet that is only one way of looking at the Salton Sea.  Birds look at the Salton Sea as a way-point on a migration path and as home.  The Salton Sea is also a birders paradise.   Dr Milt Friend of the Salton Sea Science Office calls it a “crown jewel of avian biodiversity”.  There have been over avian species alone documented at the Salton Sea.

Why do I like Salton Sea Photography?  For some weird reason I have always found beauty in decay of things that humans have created. Nothing we create is meant to last forever and it’s decay is beautiful to watch and capture. It’s decay is caused by nature, or maybe it’s existence alone drives nature to cause it to decay.  Seemingly even man-made things made of materials that should decay over a millennial timescale seem to take only hundreds of years.  As if nature must get rid of our presence to be at peace.  There’s also a story behind each man-made artifact that is in decay. My imagination goes wild when I photographically capture the decay and the imagination of the story behind the artifact from when it was first imagined to being abandoned, to repopulated  by… whatever… and then taken back by nature.  Somehow I see the entire history and future in my imagination. I strive to photograph just a single point of that history and future through juxtaposing beauty and decay into an image that demands to be seen.

Or maybe, as someone said to me recently, “something really weird happened to you as a child”.


First a little history on the Salton Sea

This is a paraphrase of the Salton Sea entry on Wikipedia (

The Salton Sea lies in Southern California USA.  Its surface sits 226 feet below sea level in the southern Colorado Desert.  The Salton Sea is currently fed by “the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as agricultural runoff drainage systems and creeks.” (see

Geologists estimate that as the Colorada River built it’s delta into the Sea of Cortez over the last 3 million years, it created a massive dam and which blocked the Salton Sea from the gulf and created the Salton Sink or Salton Basin.  As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for this dam, the Sea of Cotez gulf would extend all the way up into the southern ends of the Coachella Valley.

Since this massive dam formed the Salton Sea Basin or Salton Sea Sink has been a dry desert to a full fresh water lake.  As you drive south along the western shorline you can actually see the different water levels erroded into the rock and cliff faces.  The last known lake to occupy the area “was Lake Cahuilla, also periodically identified on older maps as Lake LeConte, and the Blake Sea, after American professor and geologist William Phipps Blake.” (see

Then in 1900… whoopsie…

I copied this directly from Wikipedia, it’s the best short description I can find of how the current Salton Sea formed. Here’s the link for lot’s more reading:

“In 1900, the California Development Company began construction of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed. After construction of these irrigation canals, the Salton Sink became fertile for a time, allowing farmers to plant crops.

Within two years, the Imperial Canal became filled with silt from the Colorado River. Engineers tried to alleviate the blockages to no avail. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of headgates for the Alamo Canal. The resulting flood poured down the canal and breached an Imperial Valley dike, eroding two watercourses, the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east, each about 60 miles (97 km) long.[6] Over a period of approximately two years these two newly created rivers sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink.[7]

The Southern Pacific Railroad attempted to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the canal’s headgates area, but the effort was not fast enough, and as the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley, a massive waterfall was created that started to cut rapidly upstream along the path of the Alamo Canal that now was occupied by the Colorado. This waterfall was initially 15 feet (4.6 m) high but grew to a height of 80 feet (24 m) before the flow through the breach was finally stopped. It was originally feared that the waterfall would recede upstream to the true main path of the Colorado, attaining a height of up to 100 to 300 feet (30 to 91 m), from where it would be practically impossible to fix the problem. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Indian land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.[8][9] “

A resort paradise, not.

During the 1950’s developers, architects and eccentrics alike believed the Salton Sea could be inland ocean resort land.  Towns such as Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach were all built up in hopes of attracting tourists.  Then the results of years of agricultural inflow and no outflow started to occur.  Higher salinity, up to an estimated 4.4%, much higher than the ocean, pollution, algae blooms and subsequent fish die offs all contributed to an environment that in no way would support a tourist community.  The population went into decline, people simply left.  structures and potential developments such as the wealthy canals like Venice Beach just abandoned.  Many, many properties were simply left to rot. Including the famous Albert Frey North Shore Marina.

The result is a crazy, eerie landscape of dashed hopes, decay, attempts to rebuild… a photographer’s paradise.

Check out some of my Salton Sea Photography in the below gallery.