Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bombay Beach - Crumbling in Monochrome at the Salton Sea

Dear Readers, one of my readers suggested that the cross-processed photographs of Bombay Beach in my previous article looked a bit odd and that the Bombay really should be black and white. So let us try again. I did not have a real (film) camera with me, but I reprocessed many of the RAW files with DxO Filmpack 3 to simulate Kodak's famous Tri-X film.
Bombay Beach is a former resort/trailer court on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, in Imperial county, California. To reach it, drive on California Highway 111 along the barren desert east of the Sea, and turn west on Avenue A.  
Well, it does not look too bad. There is a store and mailboxes. Human habitation, perhaps?
Oops, the view from Avenue A becomes a bit grim. To the north, beyond the one bush, is a dry and featureless plain.
To the south, well, it was trailer heaven once upon a time.
The gate leads to a sizable deserted parking lot at the plage. They were optimistic.
Continue to the end of Avenue A, and the levee protects the town from flooding. Drive up onto the levee, and the land beyond is a mess of twisted trailer and collapsed sheds. It looks like the debris I saw along the Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina, but the Salton Sea does not have hurricanes.  Very odd.
In the water, the pilings are encrusted with salt, and the beach sediment consists of fish bone rubble. 
At least someone had fun with this old chimney.
Back in town, Fifth Street was the waterfront (levee-front?) corniche. Maybe the graffiti is more interesting.

Turn back inland along Avenue G. Someone collected classic Volkswagen Beetles. Rather cool. Someone else collected classic tires. Less cool. 

The well-known western author, Harold Bell Wright, wrote a novel about the formation of the present Salton Sea, The Winning of Barbara Worth. My daughter borrowed it from her local library. Her opinion was that it is one of those novels that does not age well. It lacks the pace or writing style that modern readers find interesting, but it does give an interesting window into the attitudes of the day. The primary assumption of the characters in the book is that by "reclaiming" the desert and making it fertile and lush, they are somehow doing a great work for the world or for God. The desert was something that was "broken" and had to be fixed. It is rather shocking to think that this was the attitude that caused us to make huge alterations to the West, and that a mere 100 years can shift attitudes so drastically.

Also, Barbara inspires all the desert reclamation workers by her "pure essence of womanhood." Well, times have changed...

Harold Bell Wright wrote The Winning of Barbara Worth while living in the tower at the Holt House, on Olive Avenue in Redlands, California. He modeled the protagonist on his host, Mr. Holt. Wright was a pastor, and possibly when the church could no longer afford his services, Mr. Holt provided him a place to stay.

My daughter drove me to Bombay Beach, as she knows my photographic interests. The ground-level photographs were taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera, with RAW files processed with Adobe Camera Raw and DxO Filmpack 3.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea

Bombay Beach - it sounds so exotic. Is it a luxurious tropic resort? A coral island in the Andaman Sea? Well, not quite; it is a decaying, seedy resort on the shores of the Salton Sea in southern California.
Look at the aerial photograph of the eastern side of the Salton Sea. Bombay Beach is the rectangle in the center right. It is only about an hour drive from Palm Springs. This was a semi-trendy resort in the 1940s, but fish kills and environmental degradation of the Salton Sea largely killed the town. Once upon a time, Hollywood celebrities came to the Salton Sea to water ski and enjoy the winter sunshine. Not any more.

The mental_floss web page is less charitable
"It's a 10-by-10-block square of squat houses and mobile homes that was somebody's idea of paradise back when the town was incorporated in 1929. A beachy getaway 150 miles from the Pacific, it was supposed to be Palm Springs with water -- but decades of hyper-saline farm runoff and other problems turned the sea into a nightmare; plagued by fish and bird die-offs and outbreaks of botulism that leave its banks littered with corpses and its beaches smelling like hell, all but the hardiest tourists and investors had fled the scene by the late 60s. Even worse, the Salton began to overflow its banks, flooding the bottom part of town repeatedly. The remains of dozens of trailers and houses that couldn't be saved still sit rotting, half-buried in salty mud, along what used to be the town's most prized few blocks of real estate." 
Even the called it a "skeleton-filled wasteland." The setting attracts visitors interested in the post-apocalypse scenery. It would be a great setting for a zombie movie. There is a 2011 documentary named, "Bombay Beach," with music by Bob Dylan???
Drive on into town on Avenue A after turning off from California Hwy 111. Oh oh, it already looks like a place for urban decay photography.
The view north is a bit bleak.
But there is a shop and mailboxes, so there are some residents still here.
But continuing west on Avenue A, you do not see much evidence of active habitation. In this photograph, I think the box contains a swamp cooler. It is an old-fashioned air conditioner in which a fan blows air through a mist of water and cools via evaporation. In this climate, the humidity feels good.
The surrounding blocks are also a bit (just a bit) bleak.
 A road leads out past the levee to the lakefront. Was this a parking lot for beach-goers?
The lakefront is really rough, just scrap from former trailers and cottages.
Hmmm, someone was buried alive...
The beach is somewhat of a mess. The pilings are coated with salt, and the beach sediment consists of pulverized fish bones.
Back in town, Fifth Street is the waterfront esplanade (all right, the levee view esplanade). The graffiti is more interesting than the view.
On Avenue G, someone collected classic Volkswagen Beetles. At least they won't rust while awaiting concours restoration.
Finally, here is the official poster from the movie. It did well at independent movie festivals.
Not all is lost. Head east into the hills, and there are a number of modest resorts that attract Canadian visitors in the winter. This is Bashford's Hot Mineral Spa in Niland. The hot spring water flows into pools, where you can sit and absorb the mineral salts. If you are soaking at dusk, you see the swallows and bats swooping about and catching insects. It is very relaxing.

2014 Update

This is a late-1940s photograph from Desert Beach, from the Salton Sea Museum. The caption reads:

Skippers sail trim yachts, not subs, 40 fathoms below the Pacific on California's Salton Sea.

Desert Beach Yacht Club, 241 feet below sea level, welcomed the flyers with burning sands, 95 degree water and warm hospitality. A member of the American Power Squadron, the club holds speedboat races each fall. buoyancy of the salt-packed water makes for record-breaking runs.

Please click the link for a black and white version of Bombay Beach.

The aerial photograph was taken my my friend, Bill Birkemeier, from My daughter brought me to this great site (she knows my photographic interests). The ground-level photographs were taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera, with RAW files processed with Adobe Camera Raw and DxO Filmpack 3. The zombie-like atmosphere inspired me to experiment with color. The green-tone color frames were created by the cross-process emulation (i.e., E6 film processed in C41 chemicals). The red Volkswagen was faded blue, but with the Kodachrome intensity slider moved to 100%, the colors reversed. Rather cool.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

By the Sea, by the Sea, by the Salty Salton Sea

An air traveler flying east from Los Angeles International Airport flies over the smoggy urban sprawl and gradually ascends over the mountains and desert southeast of the Los Angeles Basin.  Continuing past the San Jacinto Mountains, our intrepid traveler sees to the south a broad basin with a shimmering blue lake, rimmed by mountains. This is the Salton Sea.
The basin where the Salton Sea now sits was once the northern extension of the Gulf of California. Over thousands of years, the Colorado River deposited so much sediment in its delta, it filled the basin and the Gulf retreated southwards. Native Americans occupied the basin 10,000 years ago and left archaeological remains. The Colorado River spilled over into the Salton Basin on numerous occasions over the millennia, creating intermittent lakes, one of which was Lake Cahuilla in 700 A.D.

The present lake was formed in 1901, when the California Development Company, intending to develop agricultural land, dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River. Because of heavy siltation in the canals, engineers created a cut in the western bank of the Colorado to allow more water to reach the valley. But heavy spring flood waters broke through the engineered canal and nearly all the river’s flow rushed into the valley. By the time the breach was closed, the present-day Salton Sea was formed. Historic photographs show a train being derailed by the flood, and H.B. Bell's 1911 novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth, covers this event.  The present lake is about 200 feet below sea level and covers about 380 square miles (from a May 2011 pamphlet by the US Fish & Wildlife Service).
The southern part of the sea is rimmed with dikes, most of which have a road along the top.  South of the dikes are irrigated farmlands.  In the first photograph, the factory in the distance is one of seven CalEnergy geothermal electricity plants. Water is heated by near-surface magma, and deep wells drilled in the geothermal field allow water to come to the surface and power electrical generators. CalSouthern sells the electricity to the grid. This is the same concept used by power plants in Iceland, a nation without oil or gas reserves, but with volcanism and near-surface magma.

The two photographs above were taken from Rock Hill, a volcanic plug that sticks up out of the soft sediments that make up most of the basin.  Rock Hill is in  the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge:
"The Refuge is located within the Pacific Flyway, an important migration route for birds. The Refuge habitats and the Salton Sea are vital to these migrating birds as a resting place and wintering area. The Refuge was established as a sanctuary and breeding ground for birds and other wildlife when 32,766 acres were set aside in 1930."
The refuge was established in 1930 by a Proclamation from President Herbert Hoover. Originally, it consisted of 37,600 acres, but because of flooding by the Salton Sea, now only about 2,200 manageable acres remain (in other words, much of the refuge is under water).
This is an example of farm runoff. It is runoff from agriculture that maintains the Salton Sea, preventing it from evaporating in the hot arid climate. But, the irrigation water leaches salt out of the soil, and, over time, increases the salt content in the Salton Sea.  Currently, the salinity in the Salton Sea is about 44‰ (parts per thousand). To compare with other water bodies, the Pacific Ocean is 35‰, Utah's Great Salt Lake is 280 ‰, the Dead Sea about 210 ‰, and California's Mono Lake is 87 ‰ (from The major ecological risk is if salinity increases too much, fish will not be able to survive, and the food source for countless migrating birds will disappear.
This is what happens to docks and concrete in contact with the water. Pilings get coated with a rind of salt, and steel is totally eaten away. These photographs were from Bombay Beach, subject of the next essay. You have never seen better urban decay until you have visited Bombay Beach.

Various web sites with scientific and ecological data:
  1. A general summary and overview of ecological problems is at this San Diego State University site.
  2. The State of California has a chronology of events at the Salton Sea
  3. The U.S. Geological Survey has a Salton Sea Science Office with publications and  LIDAR data.
  4. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has a site about the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

Bell, H.B. 1911.  The Winning of Barbara Worth.  Kessinger Publishing LLC (2010 facsimile reprint, 518p.

The first photograph was taken by my friend, Bill Birkemeier, from  The others are with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera, with RAW files processed with PhotoNinja or DxO filmpack.