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UCR Economist Predicts That A Salton Sea Resort
Could Be A Sweet Deal

By Kris Lovekin
University of Redlands
January 14, 1999

Think water-skiing and Jet-skis.

Think condos and boat houses.

Think $6 to $10 billion dollars in potential wealth from a sparkling clean 376-square-mile saltwater lake just 150 miles east of Los Angeles.

Those are the thoughts of Michael Bazdarich, director of UCR's Inland Empire Economic Data and Forecasting Center, about the Salton Sea, California's largest lake. His forecast of an economic revival around the much-maligned sea is more than just a bunch of paper. According to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. George Brown, Bazdarich's forecast could help make it happen.

Nearly a century ago, a flood of the Colorado River flood inundated an earthquake crater. Voila!

The Salton Sea sits in the heat of the desert, 30 miles south of Indio, with no natural outlets and constant evaporation. When the water was clean, movie stars wintered there. Now even the fishing and camping trades around the lake are dying, along with fish and migratory birds, because the rivers feeding the sea are polluted with salts, chemicals and raw sewage from agricultural operations in Mexico and the Coachella Valley.

"Everyone knows we can't keep going the way we are," said Bazdarich, who works within The A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management.

"Everyone" includes the late U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono, who spoke of his happy childhood visits to the lake before he died in a skiing accident Jan. 5. Four days later, "An Economic Analysis of the Benefits of Rehabilitating the Salton Sea," was posted on the World Wide Web, a coincidental and timely event.

Bazdarich predicted that if the water were clean, at a stable level and only as salty as ocean water, the Salton Sea would develop into the next great resort destination, bringing a private sector bonanza and a $160 million annual increase in property and sales taxes. On Jan. 14, Bazdarich spoke at The Salton Sea Symposium in Palm Desert, and several of the next morning's headlines trumpeted his findings, according to Patrick Quinlan, spokesman for Brown, a Democratic congressman from San Bernardino who has pushed for years to get the sea cleaned.

On February 25, Brown and three other members of the Salton Sea Congressional Task Force submitted The Sonny Bono Memorial Salton Sea Restoration Act, a $327.5 million piece of legislation. Quinlan said Bono's death was certainly the emotional catalyst behind the bill, but Bazdarich's findings gave political and financial "legs" to the Salton Sea issue. He said it would help convince legislators that spending money on the Salton Sea is not just a giveaway to environmentalists, but a shot in the arm to the economy.

"Look how far people will go for water sports," Bazdarich said, pointing out that Lake Havasu on the Arizona border and Lake Tahoe near the Nevada border are at least a day's drive from Southern California. "Here we have the largest body of water in California 150 miles away from Los Angeles and 90 miles away from Riverside. Look at the potential if the water quality was good."

In addition to the tax windfall from development of privately owned lands, Bazdarich factored in the benefits to the government of preventing future degradation of property values and came up with a total benefit, over time, of between $6 and $10 billion.

The magnitude of the potential economic windfall surprised everyone involved, including the research sponsor: United States Filter Corp. of Palm Desert. Richard J. Heckmann, company president and a member of UCR's Board of Trustees, told Bazdarich that most people have underestimated the economic potential of the Salton Sea.

Paying for a major cleanup project, however, has never been as politically possible as it is now. It remains a complex undertaking, requiring cooperation from interests that include Indian tribes, farmers, environmentalists, residents and several local governmental agencies.

Several solutions have already been proposed, including massive concrete holding tanks to draw off the toxins, a canal system from the gulf of California to dilute the toxins, or a series of filtering plants along the rivers that feed the sea, among others. All of those ideas would cost millions, if not billions, of dollars.

"But all of this starts to make sense if there are some huge economic benefits at the end of the tunnel," Bazdarich said.