Bombay Beach CA Rediscovered
Destination for Photographers, Movie Makers and Artists
Bombay Beach is located in Imperial County, California, on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. The city has a small population of only about 200 people. At 225 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest city in the world if judged by elevation. The city was conceived as a resort town for the wealthy in the late 1940s and 50s. The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, was drawing people to the area, and it seemed it would become a great destination playground for the rich and famous.
The sea, created by an overflow of the Colorado River in 1905, is now fed very erratically by two rivers and agricultural runoff. Salt in the water has increased so much that even the hardiest fish are dying off. Fluctuating water levels destroyed the western portion of Bombay Beach over the years. A berm was built in the 1970s to protect the town, though it's scarcely needed now. For the last few years the Salton Sea has been slowly evaporating, leaving large open beaches as its waters have retreated. Dying fish, combined with chemicals from the exposed sea bottom, produces a pervasive, unpleasant odor. The chemicals in the mud are due to the sea's years of absorbing agricultural runoff containing pesticides and chemicals.
Subsequently, Bombay Beach declined to its present condition: a curious assemblage of the leftover detritus of a human habitation long gone, a retreating beach, and a sense of profound isolation. While it seemed for a long time there was no hope for the city, it has slowly been rediscovered as an interesting destination for photographers, movie makers and artists. Since 2011, Bombay Beach and its surrounds have been reinvented as a destination for desert art. It’s not alone in that distinction – south of the city lie the towns of Niland and Slab City, other areas that have attracted artists and led to creations like East Jesus and Salvation Mountain.
In 2015 the Bombay Beach Biennale began to further change the city. Here’s how their website defines the event.
“The Bombay Beach Biennale is a renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy that takes place each year on the literal edge of western civilization, at the shores of the Salton Sea. The 2019 event encompassed over 150 activations in 72 hours, including an academic conference, live music, performances, opera, ballet, film screenings, and multiple museum openings. Many of the art installations will become permanent fixtures within the town, which is being transformed through an ongoing infusion of artwork, creativity, and community engagement. ”
Today many of the art works remain, but they will have to withstand the salt, the wind, and the dust, which will add the patina of erosion to their designs. They will also have to withstand the touches of street artists adding their own tags and commentary.
Bombay Beach has become an intriguing place to visit for some. Others might regard it solely as a derelict wasteland. Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
- Don’t drive on the beach, there are soft spots that will get you stuck for good.
- Do drive up and down all the streets; the art is just about everywhere.
- There is no gas station in town, the nearest gas is in Niland, 20 miles south of Bombay Beach.
- Remember people do live there, respect their privacy.
History of Bombay Beach
The information below is from the Bombay Beach/Hot Mineral Spa Community Area Plan, created by the Planning\Development Services Department of the County of Imperial in El Centro, California in December of 1999. (http://www.icpds.com/CMS/Media/Bombay-Beach-Community-Area-Plan.pdf)
The townsite of Bombay Beach, located on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, was originally owned by R.E. Gilliagan who through Map Number 317 on October 8, 1929 "created" the townsite. The townsite quickly drew people from Southern California for weekend “getaways" for desert living and the water recreation opportunities.
On July 25, 1961, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved the formation of the Bombay Beach Community Services District to provide community management and maintenance services. With this formation a number of improvements were implemented.
In 1968, a study was prepared to ascertain the water and sewer services needed from the Coachella Valley County Water District, now known as the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD). In 1969, CVWD supported a bond indebtedness for $175,000 to construct a water system and in 1970 water was available to the residents of Bombay Beach. Through another bond, a sewage system was completed in 1974. The Imperial County Department of Public Works in 1974 graded and black topped the majority of the streets.
In January 1976, the close proximity of the Salton Sea became a threat to the townsite as the Sea began to rise and impact the existing structures. To ward off the impending inundation, a water pump and a sump pump was placed at the corner of 5th Street and Aisle of Palms, the lowest point in town. However, the Salton Sea continued to rise and as a result, all of the lots and structures below 5th street were inundated and were under water. [DesertUSA Note: The Sea as of 2019 has receded and now the area is covered with silt and mud. A berm was built in the late 1970s to protect the rest of the city.]
The townsite of Bombay Beach has evolved from a weekend "get-away" to an established community of primarily retired residents, with a mixture of weekenders and an increasing number of younger residents. In addition, several local service orientated commercial establishments are located within the townsite.
The close proximity of the Salton Sea, one of Bombay Beach's greatest assets in the past, is now one of its biggest problems.
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