Salton Sea art installations off the shore of Bombay Beach, California.

The Salton Sea

This once massive, below sea level, desert lake may soon disappear

My first introduction to the Salton Sea occurred when I was ten-years-old. My dad, who had recently purchased a camper for the back of his pickup truck, thought it would be fun to spend our Thanksgiving holiday along the shores of this desert anomaly. I remember him telling me and my older brother, Matt, that there was this interesting salt lake out in the desert which is actually below sea level. With a child’s imagination I pictured a grand body of water, with life all around its shores, and a hostile desert in the distance. An oasis.

Upon arrival to the Salton Sea I anxiously jumped out of the back of the camper to explore this exciting world I had imagined. Then an unexpected reality hit me. What I saw was, indeed, a large body of water. However, my fantasy of enjoying a wonderful desert oasis was replaced by a  smelly endless sea of murky stagnant water with little to no life along its shores.  And that hostile desert environment was not miles away but all around us. The wind was howling and pelting me with grains of gritty sand as the cold dry air pierced my clothes.

This is no paradise I thought. This is a hellish place. What was my dad thinking?

The weekend didn’t get any better. The highlight of any Thanksgiving is that huge meal that mom would set before us. However, since we were all stuck in that little camper such a grand feast was out of the question. Since a turkey would not fit in the camper’s little oven my dad thought it would be fun if we each had our own mini bird to consume. His replacement was Cornish game hens. My mom did the best she could to prepare a Thanksgiving meal in that little galley but it was a far cry from our usual feast. My brother and I didn’t complain but I still remember looking at that pathetic little bird sitting before me. The remainder of the weekend was spent huddled around the camper’s dining table with all of us playing Risk and listening to the howling wind outside as it rocked our home on wheels.

My thought at the time was that I would never return to the Salton Sea.


Not a playground for children. Decomposing biomass and chemicals from agricultural runoff have made the lake unfit for human contact.

Flash forward 40 plus years, please allow me not to give the exact number, and I find myself back at the place I vowed I would never return. Not only that but my brother joined me as well. In fact he was shocked when I invited him to join me on this adventure.

I wanted to return for a couple of reasons. The first being that I wanted to document this inland sea which is quickly evaporating. And the second was to see if the place was really as bad as I remembered it as a child.

My plan upon arrival was to quickly set up our campsite and then head out to take advantage of the late afternoon sun. I figured we would be able to easily find a campsite since the summer heat would likely keep many campers away. What I didn’t expect was that we would be the only campers in the campground. It was kind of eerie being the only people in the entire campground but we were also happy that we could choose the best site. Our number one priority was that it have shade. This place is hot and with little to no shade we new our life here would be miserable. Settling on a site with several trees we quickly established our HQ and set out to view the lake.

We headed straight for Bombay Beach where I drove right out onto the sand and observed how far the water has receded over the years.  As a kid I can clearly remember the water being right up to the campground.

With the sun quickly diving behind the mountains I prepared for my first photograph. Bombay Beach has attracted artists who have created a number of installations along the shore, in the town, and out in the water. I suppose it’s like Burning Man but with semi-permanent installations.

In order to make the image above I needed to wade out into the murky water. Signs all around the lake warn visitors not to swim in the lake as the water is not fit for human contact. Absent a hazmat suit I decided to take my chances and go in barefoot. As the soft lake bed mud oozed between my toes I wondered if this was a mistake. But the scene looked so cool I couldn’t resist. With the sun now behind the mountains I began to shoot a number of long exposures. Once I felt I had what I needed I proceeded to escape the muck and head back to camp where I quickly washed myself as well as the tripod. Should I happen to develop some super human traits we now have my origins story ready to go.

A plea to restore the Salton Sea to levels where fish and wildlife can thrive once again.

Doorway to the Salton Sea.

A new day on Bombay Beach.

Lifeguard stand?

The next morning I decided to head back to Bombay Beach at sunrise. I had a rough night of sleep, mainly due to the heat and humidity, but also because of trains rolling past our campsite every hour. When the first one came through I was startled awake thinking it was running right through my tent.

The morning offered only a little respite from the heat. But any reduction in temperature was much appreciated. As I cruised along the beach I stopped to check out several of the art installations. One of my first stops was a painted newspaper box. Thinking it was just something someone painted and placed there I was surprised when I peeked inside and saw a stack of newspapers. It was the July issue of the Surreal Times, a satirical newspaper distributed across the country. Of the many wonderful stories in this issue I particularly enjoyed the one with the headline, “Brave Dog Stops Home Intruder, Tortures Him In The Basement For 6 Months”. I always enjoy a good dog story.

If I had had a cup of coffee I could have stayed at that spot all morning enjoying the view and chuckling at the silly stories.

But, the sun was rising fast and with it the heat. I wandered along the beach a bit further down and discovered what looked like a skeleton enjoying the morning sun. An artist had cleverly assembled the skeletal structure out of bits of junk they must have scavenged in the desert.

Found an actual newspaper in this box.

After making a few more photos along the beach I headed into the actual town of Bombay Beach which was separated by a large dike. At one time the Salton Sea was so full it actually flooded  the town and other shoreline communities so a large earth wall was engineered to protect the locals. Looking today at the distance from the shore to the seawall it looks like a bit of an engineering overkill. Nevertheless the town is safe from any future floods short of something biblical.

View out the front window of a derilict home in Bombay Beach.

Today, the community of Bombay Beach is little more than a living ghost town. But that was not always the case. During the 1950s and 60s it was a happening place which attracted visitors in the hundreds of thousands. The community had a marina, a golf course, and night clubs attracting such stars as Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. Visitors enjoyed water skiing and numerous other outdoor and indoor activities. It was the place to be.

In the 1970s the lake began to salt up due to the chemical rich runoff from the irrigation of nearby farms and by the early 1980s the water was no longer suitable for life. Massive fish die-offs occurred and the place really began to smell. The Salton Sea was no longer an attractive place to spend a leisurely weekend and folks began moving away.

Artist installations, Bombay Beach

Today Bombay Beach has a population of around 297 people. A majority of the population is over the age of 65. And while this little community appears to be in decline it has attracted artists to its neighborhoods in recent years. Artists love three things. A cheap place to live and the space and freedom to express themselves. Bombay Beach offers all of these. A walk through the town is essentially an unguided tour through an outdoor gallery. Along each street there are installations, art, or graffiti that demand a closer look. Some are fenced off while most seem to welcome a curious eye. I saw almost no one while I was there and didn’t see any sort of businesses. Perhaps the heat of summer keeps many inhabitants away or huddled within their bungalows. That said I did observe utility workers in the area so it appears that they are not completely forgotten.

Throughout the existence of the Salton Sea, which is millions of years, it has gone through periods of being a huge shallow lake to a dry desert landscape. The main source for water prior to the 20th Century was from periodic flooding of the Colorado River. Its only in the last 100 plus years that the lake has had a regular supply of water. This was partially from the Colorado River but mainly from agricultural runoff from farms in the Imperial Valley. Both of these sources have disappeared in recent years. The Colorado River is now so controlled by levees and dams that flooding has been greatly reduced. Agricultural irrigation practices have changed as well so that there is not as much runoff as in past years. Combine this reduction of fresh water flowing into the basin along with natural evaporation and we can see this huge body of water disappearing right before our eyes.

A million years ago, or even a hundred years ago, this process of flooding and drought would not be a major problem. However, since the lake is now so polluted from all the chemicals released into it from past years of agricultural runoff it is now becoming both an ecological and human health catastrophe.

As the lake bed is exposed all those harmful components are picked up by desert winds and distributed over communities all around the area. Researchers are concerned that these dust particles, full of chemicals and carcinogens, will lead to a variety of health problems which include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. A scary thought for anyone living within reach of these desert winds.

For wildlife the situation is even more dire. With so many natural watersheds gone in this part of the country and replaced by either suburban development or commercial farming the Salton Sea has become an important refuge for migratory birds. Its polluted waters now threaten the lives of numerous species of birds as well as other wildlife in the area.

The State of California now has a plan to preserve a portion of the lake. But it remains to be seen if those in power see the urgency of spending millions of dollars and follow through to save this body of water.

A welcoming sign to a rather bleak environment.

A once active marina is now fading into the desert landscape.

A small dock now hundreds of meters from the receding shoreline.

Someone’s evaporated dream home.

Once surrounded by water this channel marker would guide boaters to the marina.

At one time this sign would have prevented drivers from falling into the lake.

With fewer and fewer residents, as well as visitors, it’s no surprise to see a number of derelict businesses.

After several days of blistering heat and high humidity I returned to Bombay Beach for one final shot. Storm clouds had developed over the nearby mountains and I thought it might provide for a dramatic sky. When I returned to the beach I was drawn, once again to the lone swing out in the water. The eeriness of this playground implement, sitting peacefully in this dying lake, seemed to pull together all the emotions I felt about this odd place in the desert.

After making this final image I returned to our campsite and while having dinner my brother and I reminiced about our experience. As we were discussing what we had seen and learned during our Salton Sea adventure our phones lit up with an urgent alert. “Sand Storm Coming Your Way. Take precautions.” The alert then went on to give a time as to when it would be over which was 9:30pm mountain time. Since we were in a Pacific Standard Time location we found this confusing. It was well past 9:30pm mountain time and the air was calm. Actually really calm. We looked to the horizon in all directions and saw no hint of dust coming our way. My brother, being the good Boy Scout that he is, decided to begin securing some of the camping stuff. Then, as I was cleaning up the picnic table, a breeze began to blow. Within seconds it turned into a wind and we were being pelted by desert grit. The wind was now knocking over my brother’s tent. I quickly went over to assist with dismantling his tent. Since it looked like my tent was handling the wind with no difficulty, my first thought was that we could both take shelter for the night in my tent. Then the wind kicked up into a higher gear and my tent began to flex to the point I thought the poles might snap. We both worked frantically to move all of our personal items into our cars and then take down my tent. Once down I quickly rolled it up and threw it under the picnic table where I thought it would be safe. I then noticed that our trash bag was about to blow away from its secured position so I grabbed it and ran over to the trash bins. Just as I closed the lid on the big steel trash container a huge flash of lighting lit up the night sky. And then another and another. We both jumped in our cars and watched the show. It went on for hours with flashes and streaks of lighting all around us. I would have liked to have made a lightning photo but decided it was too close and not worth my life. If the wind and lightning weren’t enough it then began to rain. I knew then that I’d be sleeping in the car.

Somehow I managed to get several hours of fairly restful sleep. Matt woke up first and tapped on my window. He said joyfully, and somewhat sarcastically, “We survived!” He then proceeded to hit the play button on his Spotify app. And what should he choose for this moment – “There’s Got to be a Morning After” by Maureen McGovern. If you don’t know the song it’s a horrible sappy song made famous from the 1972 blockbuster disaster movie “The Poseidon Adventure”. I was both annoyed and humored by the selection.

Photo by Matt Hartung

Looking at the clearing morning sky I was releaved to see that the storm had passed and all of our gear, as well as ourselves, had survived. My skin had a layer of desert grit still clinging to my body so I headed over to the camp water supply and took a much needed bucket shower. The water was warm, actually hot, but felt really good.

Thinking about that dramatic night it occurred to me that the Salton Sea wanted us to leave with another set of some long lasting memories.