The Boom and Bust of Bombay Beach

For a brief, shining moment, it was the epitome of California cool. The circle-skirt set of the 50's, tanned and vibrant, flocked to this manufactured "Palm Springs with water." Now, the once-thriving resort town of Bombay Beach is nearly deserted, its cheerful, alliterative name all that's left of those heady times. A skeleton pier juts out into the thick, stagnant water, and rotting fish line the sand where beach babes once sunned themselves. The Salton Sea is a lake stranded in the desert, slowly choking on its own brine.

The largest body of water in California began as an accident. In 1905, an irrigation canal — part of a new project to divert water from the Colorado River in order to moisten the desert floor enough to produce crops — was hit hard after a long season of rainfall and flooded its levees, quickly eroding the network of canals in the desert basin. Though the Southern Pacific Railroad tried to dam the spillage, it was too late. With nowhere to go, water continued to flood the below-sea-level basin of California's Imperial Valley over the next two years, submerging the town of Salton and 376 square miles of desert floor. It was, in fact, this disaster that later led to the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1929 in order to better control the powerful force of the Colorado River.

When the large lake didn't quickly evaporate as many thought it would, post-war real estate developers did what they do best: they seized the opportunity to turn desert wasteland into a tourist attraction. They christened it the "Salton Riviera"and embarked on a massive advertising campaign to jazz up its image. Within a few years, towns with names like Desert Shores, Salton City and, of course, Bombay Beach, were popping up along its banks. There were motels and restaurants, yacht clubs and waterskiing. People bought houses and built schools. It was a postcard-perfect vision of a resort town, built on nothing but sand.

Like most bubbles, it would soon burst.

The land-locked sea has no outlet; water is lost only through evaporation in the frequent 115-degree temperatures of eastern California. What started as river water grew more and more concentrated with minerals until it was saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Agricultural runoff from nearby fields offset evaporation but filled the water with pesticides and fertilizer, turning it into a murky sludge. Outbreaks of botulism and deoxygenation left bird and fish populations severely threatened as algae blooms covered large swaths of the putrid water's surface. The lake, once lauded for its sport fishing, could no longer support life.

By the 1970's, the tourists were gone; the towns were all but abandoned. In 1977, tropical storm Doreen blew through, flooding what was left along the sea's shores. Many structures remain, half-buried in mud and frozen in time. Curtains still flutter at the windows of rotting beach houses. Paved and named blocks of symmetrical streets wait for subdivisions that were never built. Rusted shells of Chevys and Pontiacs are barely recognizable.

Many describe this place as post-apocalyptic, and it is. Not, I think, because it's abandoned, but rather because of the eerie, ever-present signs of life that remain: snapshots still hanging on walls, shoes strewn on rotting living room carpet. When they left, they left in a hurry.

But they didn't all leave. In 2010, 295 people still lived in Bombay Beach. 40% of them live alone, their heavy-shuttered houses sealed up against the punishing heat. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away so, when they leave home, most residents tool around the roomy streets on golf carts, stopping at the general store (stocked with packaged foods and dusty greeting cards circa 1980) or the local bar, housed in a trailer.

As you drive down heat-warped highway 111, the sea appears in the distance as it must have once been: a sparkling, white-sand oasis. But take a handful of that sand today and you'll find only the sea-smoothed bones of millions of dead fish, a rougher, almost prehistoric mixture. Waves lap the beach against a pretty backdrop of rounded mountains; the sound is comforting, but the air stings your nose with a sharp, thick, rotten perfume. It's an alien world that's also strangely familiar. Unexpected signs of life — unopened jars of maraschino cherries washing up among the rotting fish — constantly remind you that this place was once a town like yours filled with people like you.

(Image credits: Salton Sea Museum; Shutterstock; Shutterstock; Shutterstock; Shutterstock; Shutterstock)