BOMBAY BEACH, CALIFORNIA — The lake is drying up, uncounted dead fish line the shore, and the desert town is losing people.
It could be the plot of a post-apocalyptic movie set in the future, but this is actually happening here and it has been going on for years. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time when this town was booming. There was a time when the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, was the “French Riviera” of the state, and the pride and joy of Imperial County. But that was decades ago, during the Sea’s heydays of the 1950s and 1960s. Back when this area had luxury resorts, piers, yachts, and thousands of visitors, including stars like Frank Sinatra — who owned a house in nearby Palm Springs and would come down to see Guy Lombardo sail his speedboat.
“You couldn’t put a towel on the beach,” Larry Wiebalk, 69, told ThinkProgress as he relaxed on his porch one recent morning. “When it was the heydays we had five bars here,” he recalled before jokingly adding there are now only two left because you have to bar hop. There was fishing, too, after people introduced freshwater desert pupfish, striped mullet, mosquitofish, and then, as the lake’s salinity increased, saltwater corvina, and tilapia that until the 1970s thrived in this 350-square-mile lake. “The fishing was the best of the world,” Wiebalk said.
But all the allure of the resorts, the yachts, the visitors, and the fishing has dwindled away, leaving in its place a looming environmental disaster that experts said threatens the air of Imperial, Riverside and even Los Angeles counties. If that’s the case, Bombay Beach seems like the first victim. The area looks and feels desolate. Many homes are boarded up, graffitied, or otherwise vandalized. If the “broken windows” theory was local policy, this town would be overrun with deputies. But there’s no need for that because the place is peaceful, residents said. And that’s no surprise. Bombay Beach has lost about half its population since the year 2000, according to the most recent data, and now has about 170 people, mostly retirees, living across a dying lake that is nonetheless surrounded by all kinds of life.