Photographing Bombay Beach, California

Photographing Bombay Beach, California

Visiting the ruinous mid-century tourist town on the edge of the toxic Salton Sea in southern California

A half-hour drive southeast of Palm Springs, California, takes you to the Salton Sea, an immense body of water that stretches as far as the eye can see. Its size and name could lead you to believe you're seeing the ocean, when in fact the Salton Sea is a toxic, dead lake in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape that once attracted more visitors than Yosemite National Park.

It all started in 1905 when Imperial Valley farmers dug canals into the Colorado River to help irrigate their crops. Unexpectedly, the river burst through their primitive dykes and began filling a dry, salt-rich basin named the Salton Sink. The river flowed continuously into the valley for almost two years (!) before a massive engineering effort successfully halted the river. By that point, a gigantic salt water lake encompassing over 400 square miles had been created. People assumed the lake would eventually evaporate and disappear under the hot desert sun, but runoff water from neighboring farms and rainfall kept the lake intact.

By the 1950s, developers brimming with post-war optimism got the idea of turning the lake into a recreation area. The lake was stocked with salt water fish from the Pacific Ocean, and the area exploded with new construction and developments including marinas, restaurants, homes, campgrounds, and yacht clubs. Elaborate plans were made for tropical, mediterranean style neighborhoods surrounded by salty lagoons. Towns named "North Shore", "Salton City" and "Bombay Beach" were built on the edge of the lake. In its heyday, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and others regularly performed there.

Life was good.

But the party didn't last. Just a few years later in the 1970s, scientists grew concerned about the lake. The water was receding, and its salinity (the amount of salt in the water) was increasing due to contaminated runoff water from neighboring farms. The latter would decrease oxygen in the water and cause irreversible harm to area wildlife. Soon thereafter, millions of dead fish and birds washed up on shorelines around the lake, covering an area as large as two soccer fields. Locals at the time claimed the stench could be smelled from miles away.

As if that wasn't bad enough, in the early 1980s, unusually strong thunderstorms dumped an unprecedented amount of rain into the Salton Sea; raising water levels and destroying marinas, beaches, and buildings constructed along the shore. Photographer Richard Misrach captured a number of memorable images of the flooded towns around the Salton Sea from this time period.

All told, tourism at the Salton Sea died as quickly as it was born. People abandoned the area in droves, with the exception of a few hundred diehards (mostly elderly retirees who likely couldn't afford to leave their now practically worthless property). Today, the Salton Sea is considered one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history.

When I arrived at Bombay Beach in April 2023, the water smelled like rotten eggs. Plumes of strange white foam and algae ringed its shoreline. Signs warned visitors not to swim or consume fish caught in the lake. Numerous remnants of the 1950s and 60s were still visible, including vintage trailers, mid-century architecture, and cheerful signage and typography welcoming vacationers from years past.

But there were also surprising signs of life. Roads had recently been repaved. Twenty somethings wearing sunglasses and pastel muscle shirts glided around on electric unicycles. Recreational camper vans and buses were parked on the beach. Intriguing sculptures mostly constructed from scrap and junk were everywhere. There were even a few cheap Airbnbs, including this 70s themed trailer with a giant white egg on its roof.

The future of Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea is unclear. Lake levels are now receding due to decreased runoff water from area farms (who are struggling to get water from the Colorado River, like all western states these days). This is revealing more dust containing elevated amounts of arsenic and selenium, which is then picked up by strong desert winds and carried miles away; potentially affecting the health of thousands of California residents (notably Palm Springs). Plans to suppress the toxic dust, cleanup the lake, protect what wildlife remains, and perhaps even rebuild the lake's natural habitat have been stalled by years of bureaucratic red tape. The Salton Sea is the proverbial hot potato no one wants to take responsibility for, or pay for.

But that hasn't stopped Bombay Beach from morphing into a Burning Man style desert getaway for artists and nonconformists searching for cheap land and a different way of life. There's a vibrant, almost lawless energy to the place, where things can only get better because they can't get any worse. An alternate reality in an increasingly homogenized world.

Thanks to Indie Film Lab for their excellent film development and scans.