Fish skeletons line Bombay Beach, on the eastern shore of California's Salton Sea.
  • Fish skeletons line Bombay Beach, on the eastern shore of California's Salton Sea.
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Three hours from San Diego, east of the Anza-Borrego desert, lies the Salton Sea. When stopped by border patrol on our first drive out to the sea, the officer seemed surprised by our destination.

“You know Bombay Beach isn’t a real beach, right?” he responded.

In some ways, he was right. The Salton Sea is a relatively new feature of the Imperial Valley desert, having formed during a flood of the Colorado River in 1905.

Touted as the “Californian Riviera,” it flourished as a resort until increasing salinity and retreating waters killed off the fish populations and destroyed tourism. Marinas, boat clubs and holiday homes were left abandoned, and some of these salt-encrusted structures still stand as vacant ruins along Bombay Beach, on the east shore of the sea.

Bombay Beach is a surreal place. As with any surviving settlement at the site of disaster, it’s not always obvious which areas of town are still inhabited and which have been left to the mercy of the sun and winds.

We drive through a grid of residences, looking for a respectful place to park. Other than a single blaring radio, the streets are silent: no barking dogs, no revving cars, no laughter. A solitary resident ambles past us on a golf cart – the nearest gas station is many miles away, so locals use more convenient transport to get around – and seems as curious of us as we are of him.

After parking by a burnt-out garage with ominous graffiti warning “the hills have eyes,” we walk a block to the beach. It’s an apocalyptic wasteland of discarded trailers half-submerged in salty sand, skeletal homes bleached by the sun and lonely water towers that drip and rust.

We pass broken fridges, a blinded TV, a discarded desktop computer, a bathtub planted in the ground. Deep footprints track previous explorers like ancient man. A reservoir of bright pink water, presumably colored by the strange chemical content, bobs with bloated tires and a few scraggly pelicans. Definitely not your typical weekend outing.

Further along the shore we find a beach of fish skeletons. Thousands of clean-picked bones and empty eye sockets mark the tide line. A few gulls pick over the debris, but there's nothing left to scavenge. The air smells of rot and decline.

And yet, just a little way further along the sea, the scenery changes completely; the water is deep blue and clear. Herons stand sedately at the shore. Lush palms have returned, and renovations are starting again.

From vantage points like this, it's easy to imagine the Salton Sea in its heyday and understand why floods of tourists braved the unforgiving desert for its dazzling, peaceful waters.

Of course, no trip to the Imperial Valley would be complete without stopping by the phenomenal Salvation Mountain for a chat with lovely Leonard, but that’s another story…

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Ken Harrison May 8, 2012 @ 8:22 p.m.

It is time to face facts, we can either waste billions - dollars and gallons of water - trying to keep an artificial lake heathy. Or stop and let it return to what it was for centuries until the flooding accident just a short 106 years ago. That kind of money can be spent on so many other beneficial environmental projects. Let the Salton Sea go back to desert


yeahcooksie May 9, 2012 @ 9:04 a.m.

Keep in mind, califcomedy, what happens to all that toxic runoff when the lake dries up? it turns in to dust which gets blown in to San Diego, Phoenix, L.A. and Vegas. You think it's a problem now? wait until it dries up! centuries ago, it was just H20. now it's filled with man made pesticides.


Bellini May 9, 2012 @ midnight

Another beautifully written and thought provoking article from this talented travel writer. I have only glimpsed the Salton Sea from far hills myself and was intrigued to learn of its history. This haunting description records yet another of man's futile attempts to work against nature. Will we ever learn? I'm with califcomedy on this issue. Looking forward to hearing about the enigmatic Leonard though.


my2centz May 9, 2012 @ 8:28 a.m.

The Salton sea is not artificial. It has had many iterations going back thousands of years being created by the natural flooding and shifting deltaic action of the Colorado river. The Cahuilla indians fished there until the last time it dried up over 500 years ago. The damming of the Colorado river has halted this process for now. Irrigation runoff keeps the lake level stable . The problem is that the runoff contains pesticides and nitrates which increase the salinity and promote algae blooms that kill any life other than that which can live in the increasingly saline water. It is still an important stopover for Migratory birds.

So, which human effort do you wish to discontinue? As there are several causes for the current condition.


Javajoe25 May 11, 2012 @ 5:23 p.m.

I cannot believe what has happened to the Salton Sea. My family visited it many years ago and we all swam along with dozens of other people and watched water skiiers fly across the water, towed by powerful motorboats.

I think steps should be taken to save the Salton Sea. I think a certain amount of water from the Colorado or the canals in the area could be channeled in and would eventually revive the Sea and reduce the salinity. The Sea is clearly an unappreciated and neglected asset. I don't understand the community that is there, allows the area to become so blighted. I realize it would be a big undertaking, but people can put some boots and gloves on and go and haul out all that submerged trash. Just because the area did not turn into the gold mine they thought it was going to be, is no reason to let the place go totally to hell.

Having a rare thing like the Sea in the middle of the desert is a blessing that should not be squandered. I hope someone somewhere will take the necessary steps to save it.


Twister May 11, 2012 @ 9:54 p.m.

The inflow water has a certain salt content. The evaporation rate is at least nine feet per year. Evaporation leaves ALL salts, sediments, and contaminants behind, increasing their concentration.

"Little" details like this need to go into every "fix." Some fixes are not possible, and if possible, not feasible. But "consultants" and other scavenging parasites will be only too happy to take your money. Trouble is, that means mine and everybody else's too.

"We" have come to believe that Big Daddy Gummint can and should fix everything. We worship technology. After all, that's what got us where we are today!


Javajoe25 May 12, 2012 @ 8:18 a.m.

Sonny Bono thought it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, his death resulted in a lack of leadership for the idea. Maybe it needs a massive inflow of water for a short period of time. Sort of the way it was last formed by the breaching of the Colorado through some dams.

Twister, yes, Big Daddy Gummint can and should fix the problem. Look at all the dead fish; look at the disgusting chemical ponds; that's what Big Daddy Private Enterprise got you. Big Daddy Gummint has built the grandest, the largest, the most impressive and useful things this country has ever seen. And it will be Big Daddy Gummint who will build the next one, just as soon as the people get the power back from the profit-oriented scumbags who leave us with messes like the Salton Sea.


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