The People of the Sea

California's Salton Sea could dry up and die, or be fixed and developed. Either way, its renegades, recluses, ruffians and retirees will lose.

  • Salton City, California

  • “Rat’s Nest” in Slab City on the Salton

  • Salton Sea eccentrics include Willis Thomas, who says he's

  • "Can-can girls" at a fashion show

  • The Rev. Leonard Knight and his Salvation

  • Abandoned trailer in an unnatural-looking pool in Bombay

  • Instead of sand, the shores of the Salton Sea are deep in

  • Rick Davis does his part by adding a gallon of fresh water


The village of Bombay Beach, Calif., is quiet, save for the occasional screams of gulls on the nearby Salton Sea. It's 10:30 a.m. on a winter morning. Gusts of wind flecked with sand and salt whip for-sale signs in front of broken-down mobile homes and boarded-up bungalows. Front yards and empty lots are strewn with the relics of lost hope - an abandoned green motorboat tagged with graffiti, lifeless sedans, rotting camper shells, piles of used clothing, filthy couches, broken bottles, plastic garbage bags.

Eight years ago, census takers counted 366 residents in Bombay Beach; it's unclear how many live here now. Bombay Beach does not attract many newcomers. The current townies tend to stick to themselves, gathering for entertainment at the town's popular bar, the Ski Inn, where Mayor Wacko holds court.

On this particular morning, Wacko sits on a barstool, sipping a pink drink. His real name is Wayne Graham, but he prefers his nickname, which someone gave him years ago for reasons he can't remember. He is not really the mayor, either; his bar friends gave him the title and it stuck. He is 70, thick-set, with a gray walrus moustache and sad blue eyes. He struggles to compete with a TV tuned to a World War II movie with lots of explosions and a woman at the end of the bar who's bellowing that she's thinner than most of the old cows in Bombay Beach.

Wacko has been enchanted with the Salton Sea for 35 years, ever since he worked for the telephone company in Long Beach. He remembers the waning heyday of the Sea, back in the 1970s, when it was still known as California's Riviera. Cars lined up for miles to get a beachside camping spot. Tourists came to fish for orange-mouthed corvina, to race speedboats and water-ski, to spot celebs like Sonny Bono and Frank Sinatra. They came to escape the frenzy of Los Angeles, just 180 miles or so to the west.

Mayor Wacko escaped to the Sea practically every weekend. He drank until Sunday evening and somehow got himself back to the city in time for work, swearing never to drink again. Then he'd return to the Sea the next weekend and repeat the cycle.

He loved the isolation, the fishing, the beauty of the silver lake encircled by stark mountains. Eventually, he retired to Bombay Beach and leased a bar there. Things went OK until a deluge of irrigation water from Imperial Valley farms raised the sea's water level and flooded Wacko's bar and just about every other building on the Bombay Beach shore. When the Sea retreated, it left a wasteland of rotted buildings and vehicles resting on salt-white barnacle shells and fish bones.

This bizarre body of water isn't really a sea at all; it's a land-locked agricultural drainage sump 35 miles long and 15 miles wide and up to 50 feet deep in places. It sits in the Salton Sink, a below-sea-level trough embedded in one of the hottest deserts in North America. For thousands of years, the dry Salton Sink periodically morphed into a lake whenever the flooding Colorado River silted its own channel, jumped its banks, and careened crazily into the Sink. Because the Salton Sink has no outlet, the floodwater eventually evaporated, and the Sink reverted to a dry lakebed.

Then man stepped in.

In 1905, when engineers diverted the waters of the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River crashed through a canal bank and roared into its old digs at the Salton Sink. It took over a year to coax the Colorado back into its natural channel, and by then the Salton Sea had been created. This time, it wasn't allowed to dry up.

For a century now, the Sea has been sustained by irrigation waters that drain from the nearby Imperial Valley and Mexico. This water replaced the roughly 1.3 million acre-feet of water that was lost through evaporation. It also dumps tens of thousands of tons of fertilizer and four million tons of salt into the Sea every year, according to the Pacific Institute, an independent think tank that studies, among other things, environmental and sustainability issues. Today the Sea is saltier than the ocean. Its nutrient-rich waters periodically belch up pockets of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that kill off thousands of tilapia, one of the few fish that can survive the salty swill.

The increasing salinity and pollution, combined with a long-term water transfer from Imperial Valley farmers to thirsty Southern California coastal cities, threaten to destroy the Sea and the creatures - and culture - that rely on it.

The Sea's elevation has dropped over one foot in the past five years, the Pacific Institute says, and exposed about 3,500 acres of lakebed. Once the water transfers take full effect in 2018, it's expected to shrink by about 40 percent.

Here's the problem: If the Sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly. Crops in the nation's winter salad bowl - the Imperial Valley - will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we'll all feel the fallout.

First to suffer will be Imperial County residents in the path of prevailing southeast winds, who already suffer from a high childhood asthma rate. Tony resort communities like Palm Springs, some 80 miles to the west, would also be hurt. And the millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway that rely on the Sea as a substitute wetlands, now that California has destroyed almost 95 percent of its natural wetlands, would have no place to go.

But so far, little has been done to save the Sea. In January, the federal Bureau of Reclamation proposed a restoration plan so ponderous and slow-moving that it essentially puts the onus of fixing the mess onto the state, which is legally bound by water agreements to restore the Sea.

Even so, the California Legislature has yet to formally adopt a restoration plan or choose an agency to lead the restoration. Nor has it found the dollars to do the work. That's due to a budget crisis, and perhaps to the fact that birds - and the smattering of retirees, renegades, ruffians and recluses who live at the Sea - have little voice in the Sacramento Statehouse.

Mar 03, 2008 11:56 AM

There is this interesting film I saw on the Salton Sea.  Pretty cool stuff.

Mar 21, 2008 11:11 AM

I really hope something is done about this pretty place.  I visited today and I can see the potential.  Come on California get it together and recreate this great place for all of mankind!  With all the money we put into useless projects, this project must be funded and now.  It was so hard to believe that a place like that was just left to rot away.  The government and California should be ashamed of doing that to such a beautiful place and to the people that live there.


Posted by a concerned American 

Mar 30, 2008 12:31 PM

We just got home last night from Ashland, Oregon, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is producing the premier production of "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" a play about the struggles of an Iraq war marine as she heads toward home. It is set in, of all places, Slab City, and features a number of characters similar to those in the article.

 Keep up the good work. For more info, go to

T K - Oroville CA

Apr 22, 2008 11:56 AM

Unbeleivable! I thought that sea had dried up years ago. Is it really important wetlands? It must be saved for that purpose alone.

Apr 28, 2008 11:47 AM



May 27, 2008 11:53 AM

Every part of this nation ,is part of our home let's take care of it .The Salton Sea it's waiting for you to do something about much money is already expended on things that are taking the economy of this country to sink, for example the Iraq war. The money that is need to fix the lake it's only a kitty hair compared to this war.  just imagine the economic boom that this lake would bring to California. It will pay back whatever money was spent on fixing the lake . Please take action before its to late to solve this problem.


Raymundo Noriega

e-mail me at: 

Jun 02, 2008 01:09 PM

I also saw the documentary of the Salton Sea.  I would be willing to sign a petition for the California government to restore the sea.  There is always money for what the politicians want to spend it on.  Something should be done before it's an emergency situation, such as air quality, etc.

Jun 06, 2008 11:54 AM





Jun 09, 2008 12:23 PM

I guess I am an authority to the past of Salton Sea, Bombay Beach in least I was as a teen when I knew everything! I lived there 3 years as a teen and before that we made sure we were at the Sea every weekend for many years before that. I guess total, we were there from 1964-1971. I was there in it's prime before anything bad ever happened. It was a party-capital for any kid and Orange-County girls flocked to be around us locals! In fact, I only recently in the last year found our that Salton Sea was dying and dead for many years. Why is there not enough media covering this eco-disaster? Someone is getting rich sitting in an office and not putting teh word out about this sick lake. I have been living in Tulsa, OK. So I drove my 2 teens and wife there for a vacation. Forever I have told them about how beautiful it was. How much fun I had growing up there. During Phesant season there were thousands of birds all over the place to shoot. There were natural hot mineral springs coming out of the ground to soak in and be cured of many ailments. There were fresh-water ponds all around the Chocolate Mountains to swim in. How big the Corvina were and the boats all over the water. I am now 55 years old, and Salton Sea was the very best place I have ever lived in my life so far. Then as we came up the highway from Niland onto Bombay Beach, I felt a cold chill and new something was very wrong. There was not a boat in sight anywhere. There were very few gulls. The water had lost it's alive color. There were no sandy beaches. There were no crowds or lines of cars. Every camping place was a ghost town. Bombay Beach was a virtual ghost town and I didn't know why. There was a levy blocking my way to the water's edge and every marina and tavern was dead and gone. NOthing was vibrant anymore as I remembered it. So sad and sickening. I say the Trade Winds bar flooded and burned out. Frank and Alma once owned it and it was a packed house every weekend. Red and Dick Bringle used to have hundreds of boats in the Bombay Marina every week. All that is left is teh channel where boat slips used to be built. There used to be a beautiful sandy beach all along the north shore of the marina. I hardly recognized my old place where I lived. I was to much in shock to cry. All the precious memory places I wanted to share with my kids was dead and gone. Now that I'm back home and digging into researching what the Hell happened, I grieve for the death of such a wonderful place, and yet nobody really knows it died and very few even care. So now my mind is screaming to anyone who will listen, "WHAT CAN WE DO TO BRING IT BACK???" I don't think this is just an Imperial Valley problem, or California problem. I think there are enough people nation-wide who grew up around Salton Sea, that everyone across the USA should help revive this world-class recreation area. If irrigation flooded the lake - make farmer and land owners responsible. If Mexican land owners got rich quick because of shady deals and ignorant business practice, it's time for them to be responsible and pay back what they have stolen from millions of retired older people who wanted to finish their lives on the Sea. Ill-Gotten gain is a curse to all who take and use it knowingly and will not make restitutuiion. Your families will be cursed every generation because of greedy selfish criminal actions for a few extra dollars. All run-off water needs to be captured and cleaned before it is released into the lake. No MORE CHEMICALS released and stop all beautocratic bull crap programs until this national disaster is fixed back properly. People's lives were ruined and mega-millions of dollars were lost because if stupid neglagance. So instead of wasting another dollar on anything in California, fix what once was the largest economic boom ever seen. If you are having budget crunches, fix this so dollars will flow again. Spend money of you ever want to make money. You can start by reducing the payroll of every politician from top to bottom and use that money on Salton Sea. So my question is "Who else has feelings like this? What can we do after moving to another state? What does Salton Sea need to live again? What can I do? Where can I get the full story of how this happened and it be in common-sense language I can understand? How do we go after those who are accountable for starting this snowball mess? Who has teh guts and bulldog tinacity to hold people's feet to the fire until justioice is done. Don't make taxpayers come up with the money - Get those who have raped this land adn lake for the last 30+ years and gotten rich doing so. Maybe I'm a lone voice and teh last one concerned or caring. I'd like to know what happened to all my friends who once made Bombay Beach their home. Where are you: Miles Sidner, Debbie Ackerman, Deloris Jones, Madeline Milnickle, Dale Ackerman, Bill McClaren, Mike, "Stinky", etc, the whole original Bombay Gang??? Should I just shut up and let the Sea completely die? There are plenty of lakes in Oklahoma, but none like Salton Sea. Someone let me know which way to turn. I'd like to see responsible people get off their butts and take an active role and campaign to get this started. There needs to be tons more media coverage. After all, it too me 30 years to hear and learn of this fate. Someone get this news out to every form of media nation wide, not just locally.

Bombay Beach
Aug 21, 2008 12:47 PM
My Grandparents owned a place at Bombay Beach. We went down there every chance we got. I learned to fish, water ski and ride motorcycles. Some Weekends we would have 16 to 20 friends and relitives visiting, no TV just good old fashioned fun with each
other, this went on from 1965 to the late 80's. We saved our house from flooding in 1976-77 by useing our trucks and elbow greese to haul in gravel.2008, now the place has been picked apart by Human vermin more than the elements. I still own the land but it feels as if all is lost. Now when I think of Bombay I think of the distruction and the money I have to spend just to cleanup the damage done by people. I'm heartbroken over the whole thing.
Bombay Beach Calif.
pat sinibaldi
pat sinibaldi
Nov 24, 2010 08:30 PM
I woudl love to have the sea cleaned up.I have been going there for over 50years I am 71.I still have a place there,my father still lives there and has five or six places.WE are on our out there for the winter.My mom and dad along with a number of people build a center,had a womans club, senors,AML.There was a gas station,and three bars with food.We had parties for the kids pot lucks.Most of the ones that had a lot to do with this have passed on.There are just a few left to help with the center and keep books.It is sad that there are no young people there to keep things going.When I was 17 we had no water or sewer.,we went up to the spas for water.You could leave you house unlocked walk all over town,than came people from LA to work was there so you known what happens.I went to all the neeting trying to save the sea.They spend alot of money just trying to what to do.They could have used that money to start.I have lots of pictures of the sea and when they build the center.I known this long but it was a great place.I still have to pay my taxes and keep it clean.Keep trying.Pat
reclaiming the sea
Gary Bench
Gary Bench
Mar 08, 2009 01:37 AM

I have a scheme which I think will work to clean up the salton sea.
With all that desert out there, and heat from the sun, why dosent someone use solar power to clean the water?

Simple evaporation would do it, and leave the salt and metals behind, the first problem, what to do with that byproduct, but youd be left with crystal clear water for reintroduction to the sea. 100 acres acording to my rudimentary calculation
might provide 300000 acre feet annually of clean water. My
calculation might be conservative Im no engineer, this needs to be studied.
David Neatherlin
David Neatherlin
May 19, 2009 11:50 PM
I lived there in Salton Sea Beach on Eddie Ave back in the late 80's I LOVE IT there. Please save this sea, as I would love to move back there. I would move there today if I could afford it ,

I would be willing to put water in it every day to help save it.
please save it .

if someone around there would like to give me a place I would move there today. to help save it please. Its the only real place to live in Cal still. Alot of nice people there.