Water War

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When Dave Wameling first heard that someone was building a lake near the desert town of Indio, Calif., he figured it was another case of a misguided entrepreneur spending too many hours in the 110[degrees] sun. What kind of pie-in-the-sky promoter would dream up that one?

A real estate developer, natch. That's why the Indio water-pump operator, who maintains the machinery that taps the city's aquifer, can't help muttering expletives while staring at Shadow Lake, a string-bean-shaped body of water that appeared last year. "I've lived here 50 years," says Wameling, "and I never expected to see someone waste water on a lake in the middle of the desert."

The developer, Kevin Loder, says the lake is not a waste. It is liquid opportunity. With the help of investors, Loder, 47, bought 96 acres near Indio and proceeded to sink more than $10 million into a vinyl-lined lake covering 46 acres at depths of up to 12 ft. It is big enough for water skiing, stocked with catfish and ringed with swaying reeds. And where there is lake, there is lakefront property or in this case, estate lots. "It's just like being on the beach, only we put it in the desert," says Loder. He has sold 32 of the planned 48 lots, priced at $400,000 and up. Other developers are rushing to assemble their own desert-lake parcels.

But where there's water, there's fire, at least when you live in the thirsty Southwest. Loder's 100 million-gal., 275-acre-ft. lake slurps its water from a Colorado River aqueduct; Loder pays about $15 per acre-ft. But the lake taps the canal that supplies farmers in the nearby Imperial Valley as well as the reservoirs of Los Angeles.

That's why an unusual mix of environmentalists, farmers and politicians is furious that Loder is using public water for a private lake. "This lake is the poster for water waste," says Buford Crites, a city councilman in nearby Palm Desert. "When much of the West is already suffering incredible problems from lack of water, here we are literally wasting it." The Coachella Valley water district appealed to the state water-resources control board to intervene, but the board refused; California law permits recreational use of Colorado River water.

With some justification, Loder feels he is being unjustly branded a villain. Hydrologists say a lined lake generally loses less water from evaporation than a lawn of comparable size, since grass consumes soil water while losing moisture through its blades--meaning the more than 100 golf courses in the area deserve equal scrutiny. "The lake looks wasteful," Loder says, "but it uses half the water a date grove would use, and I've attracted high-end buyers whose money feeds the local economy." Loder's completed project could add more than $1 million in property taxes, so supporters contend the lake benefits the community by improving the socioeconomic impact of the water. "This valley was built on agriculture, but that's now our weakest link," says Russell Kitahara, a melon farmer and a member of the water district's board of directors. "Unfortunately, people don't want to hear that."

Others don't want to hear that a desert is not the place for lakes or sod or houses. "People view a desert as a wasteland that needs to be transformed, but that's like saying native peoples are irreligious savages who must be transformed into upstanding Englishmen," says Victor Baker, a University of Arizona hydrologist. But Pygmalion in the desert it is. At Shadow Lake, sprinklers shower the barren hillsides during 106[degrees] afternoon heat, turning brown to green, water to steam.