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Hope springs eternal

November 01, 2005

'WATERFRONT PROPERTY." They may be the two loveliest words in real estate, with "mountain views" not too far behind. By the way, would you be interested in a lot, under $50,000 if you buy now, a block or so from a lake twice the size of Tahoe, with rocky peaks visible in the distance?

Real estate dreams never die, even when they're attached to a place with the history of the Salton Sea, an accidental lake stranded in the dusty Southern California desert of Imperial County. A Times story from 1958 tells of developers flying their customers over lots outlined in colorful, spray-painted tires. The sales were radioed to agents on the ground, who immediately planted a "sold" sign. Yacht clubs sprouted, and starlets popped up at Salton Sea powerboat races and parties.

Unfortunately, the lake had a few problems. Unpredictable water levels depended on the overflow of irrigation water from Imperial Valley farm fields, which in rainy years flooded the new houses and marinas. Algae blooms rose and died, their odor of decay wafting far across the shoreline. Fish kills later coated the shore even more fragrantly. Brown pelicans ate the fish, were sickened from botulism and died by the thousands. The boom stuttered to a halt.

All of the problems were connected, one way or another, to the lake's creation in 1905, when a canal builder's blunder essentially diverted the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, which is far below sea level. With no outflow, the lake water became steadily saltier. Pollution flowed in from irrigation water and faraway sewers. Still, its marshes became a valuable wildlife stopover, and the lake never lost its core of die-hard supporters. Today, writers, photographers and filmmakers remain entranced by its crumbling marinas, barren house lots and abandoned hopes.

Enter the Salton Sea Authority, a state-authorized group of local-government boosters who dream of 200,000 new homes along the shore, a shining new Indian-owned casino and waters cleansed in a complicated scheme that begins by dividing the lake with an 8-mile-long dike. All it will take is a few billion dollars, some advanced engineering and inflows of fresh water from ... oh, somewhere.

Over the years, the federal government has broken many promises to save the Salton Sea. A state environmental body is still mulling several plans, all of them costly. The sea is losing its irrigation runoff as farmers grow rich selling their water allotments to San Diego. Most of what humans have built around the sea has rotted or fallen, sometimes picturesquely.

Yet, at least for the Salton Sea Authority and environmental groups that hope to save wildlife habitat, the dreams still live. And the real estate salesmen never quite gave up. Still, even in the California market, a sandblasted lot for $50,000 must be a hard sell.

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