Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Candace Youngberg’s feet crunch across the parched playa as she walks to her favorite art installation on the Salton Sea shoreline in Bombay Beach, California. The large, handmade metal sign reads “S.O.S.” — an acronym for Save Our Sea.

“The artist made it as a way to bring awareness,” she said as she stood in front of it. “Save our sea, because there’s so many people here in Bombay that love it and we want it saved. We don’t want it to go away. I mean, we don’t want it to get any smaller than it already is, that’s for sure.”

Bombay Beach is tucked inside the Imperial Valley. It’s a quaint, eclectic township with a tightknit community, located about 40 minutes from the site of Southern California’s famous Coachella Music Festival and about an hour north of the border of Mexico.

People boat on the Salton Sea at sunset in Bombay Beach, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

There’s no gas station or grocery store, and only one bar and restaurant called the Ski Inn, whose patty melt was raved about by late food critic Anthony Bourdain. His face is painted on the building. Bombay is home to around 200 full-time residents with a unique history and a resilient identity.

“I love it because there’s a sense of freedom that you don’t get anywhere,” said Youngberg, who moved to Bombay full time in 1994. “It’s like a village. Everybody helps everybody.”

Vibrant-colored double-wide trailers line the town’s roughly dozen streets. Some lawns display funky art. On the dried playa is the Ruins of Bombay Beach, an eccentric sculpture installation where the S.O.S. sign Youngberg loves is prominently displayed.

The dwindling Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is its backdrop. To outsiders, Bombay is often described as a “post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare,” said resident Tala Satele. But “the locals kind of take offense to that.”

The saline lake faces similar degradation as Utah’s own Great Salt Lake. The accidental California lake, created in 1905 when the Colorado River experienced intense flooding, has gone through vast changes. Its water levels have dropped more than 10 feet in the last two decades and is now so salty that ecosystems can’t survive. Migratory birds struggle to find food. The lack of water has left an exposed lakebed that stretches for miles, kicking up dust during extreme wind events that have been known to snap power poles. The dust, mixed with pesticides from the agricultural fields that fill the Imperial Valley and other pollutants, has also plagued the surrounding shoreline communities with higher rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma.

It’s a stark reality similar to what Great Salt Lake is up against if it doesn’t return to a health level of at least 4,198 feet. It currently sits at about 4,195, thanks to two wet winters in a row. But fruitful winters aren’t guaranteed.

Luke Botting and Johnathan Hart stand on a recently made dock in the Salton Sea in Bombay Beach, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Bombay was a bustling resort destination, much like Utah’s defunct Great Saltair resort. In its early form, the Saltair was once enveloped by Great Salt Lake water. It was a getaway destination where people could walk out on a dock and float in the salty lake. Its current form is found more than a mile away from the original shoreline site and is now a concert venue that sits on top of the crunchy lake bed.

Snowbirds flocked to Bombay during the winter months. Celebrities like the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra paid visits. There was even a gas station and more than one bar in town.

Youngberg’s roots in Bombay were planted well before ‘94. Her grandparents moved here in the late ‘50s and bought property in the ‘60s. She remembers a town filled with kids where something was always going on. And her grandma, Eunice Youngberg, was a pillar of the town’s success. She planned events and played a key role in establishing Bombay’s community center.

“My grandma was big in the community. She was recognized by the state of California. They named her like the silver-haired senator for this region. She got so much attention brought to Bombay,” Youngberg said.

But the sea started to change in the 1980s. The shoreline fell back and the population went with it. In the ‘80s, Youngberg estimates Bombay was roughly 1,000 people. Every year since, fewer people kept their roots planted there. The bars, shops and even the fire station disappeared. Youngberg said it can take up to two hours for emergency services to arrive in town.

“We were forgotten for a long time from everybody, even the county people. We’re still here. We exist. There’s still people that live here full time, and we need help,” she said.

The people who still call Bombay home feel a deep connection to the place. Tala Satele is one of them. She came to Bombay in 2022. Before, she made six figures, owned a townhome and had a “gravy boat that matched my dinner plates.”

Candace Youngberg shows historic photos of Bombay Beach in Bombay Beach, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. The photo is depicting a car stuck in mud after flooding. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“I used to have a normal life. I worked on a military base for 19 years. I was a financial accountant,” she said. “Now I live in a single-wide trailer, but I’m so much happier.”

Even in the two years Satele has lived in Bombay, she’s witnessed the change. When she first arrived, some of the art was in the water, and she remembers walking on a pyramid sculpture, her toes dipping into the lake. She said the art on the playa is a visual marker of the disappearing shoreline, like the large wooden swing that was once immersed in the water.

“The swing has been moved multiple times. I think it was the end of spring this last year where the two artists that built [it], they decided that they weren’t going to move it anymore. They are hoping that leaving the swing in the dirt will kind of just highlight, like how fast the sea is receding,” Satele said.

Like Youngberg, Satele doesn’t want to see the lake shrink anymore. But she isn’t convinced things will improve.

“For years they have been fighting about how to fix the sea. They will never come to a solution. There will never be a viable solution that they can agree on,” she said.

Some Imperial and Coachella Valley residents say attitudes are different toward the Great Salt Lake. Utah lawmakers have taken action to keep the lake from deteriorating further. They’ve overhauled archaic water law to allow Great Salt Lake to hold water rights and invested millions of dollars in agricultural optimization. Most recently, lawmakers cracked down on mineral extraction companies that suck water from the lake. There is the political will to save the capital city’s namesake.

Youngberg has the will to keep her home and her grandmother’s legacy alive. She wants to revitalize the town and has spearheaded efforts to plant hundreds of trees to provide relief from the scorching heat and hopefully from the dust. She also hopes to form a historical society, revamp the community center and rebuild dilapidated homes. And five years from now, she’s got the idea to throw a big party when Bombay turns 100.

“That’s Bombay for you. We don’t give up. We fix it. We’ll figure out a way.”