The Salton Sea - The Next Big Thing?

By Gayl Biondi

Depending on who you talk to, the Salton Sea is either a giant boondoggle or The Next Big Thing in California tourism.

While both sides argue the economic, political and ecological points, folks from near and far are moving in significant numbers to Salton City, the hub neighboring West Shores communities Vista del Mar, Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores. The community of 6,000 is roughly 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent Caucasian.

For outsiders looking in, the question is “Why would anyone live there?” For new Salton City residents, the answer is simple: Where else in Southern California can you buy a well-appointed home on a good-sized lot for around $200,000?

These new pioneering spirits of Salton City are an eclectic mix of urban refugees, first time buyers, retiring boomers and aspiring entrepreneurs looking to cash in on what may be the last piece of California with tremendous up-side potential that’s still selling at bargain basement prices.

There’s the Calexico police officer, the Long Beach aerospace worker, the FedEx employee who moved from Cathedral City and the mortgage company staffer who is relocating from Moreno Valley.

Brian and Christina Johnson are a case in point. She’s a registered nurse and he works in the insurance industry. As first-time buyers, they knew they would have to leave Pasadena to find affordable digs. A friend moved to Bullhead City, Arizona, but said he regretted it because the people there were just like those in Los Angeles.

Says Brian, “We came here to the Salton Sea and fell in love with it. Everyone has been so welcoming. Neighbors wave to each other. We have 400 potted cactuses in our back yard. I’m an off-road buff, so I love the wide open spaces and the small town atmosphere. We were very impressed with Dennis, our builder, and his commitment to the area. We’re excited to be here.”


The “Dennis” Brian refers to is Dennis Rieger, president and CEO of Executive Homes, the largest builder in the area. Rieger has a huge stake in both residential and commercial development in Salton City. Along with more than 250 pre-sold homes he built in 2006, Rieger is putting the finishing touches on plans for a hardware store, a grocery store, an upscale sit-down restaurant, and the largest Arco gas station and AM/PM Mini Mart in California to date.

When he talks about the potential of Salton City, Rieger is not just giving lip service. He and his wife moved to town from a 23-acre avocado ranch in Temecula. Over time, Rieger has bought and sold 4,900 lots in the area. He’s caught the attention of the “big boys” in home construction and commercial development. Investors are buying up tracts of land for housing as real estate reps assess market potential for everything from banks to Starbucks.

Several other real estate offices with Coachella Valley ties have also set up shop with signs and banners galore to advertise easy terms, buyer incentives and a shot at the American Dream. The combined residential building effort in the Salton City area has averaged 600 to 1,000 houses each year for the past two years, representing 35 percent of the new housing in Imperial County. North of town, the Torres Martinez Indians are close to opening a 15,000-square-foot casino, and have future plans for a hotel, golf course and fairgrounds with race track.

As far as Tom Cannell is concerned, it’s not a matter of if, but when Salton City incorporates. At 83, Cannell is general manager of the Salton Community Services Direct, a special district set up by the state to manage parks and recreation, fire protection and sewer services. Cannell has already secured a sphere of influence designation with Imperial County for more than 20,000 acres that includes 430 miles of sewer lines and 5,000 manholes. His biggest fear today is that his population projection for the year 2025 of 30, 243 residents is too low.


To most Californians, the Salton Sea is beyond the middle of nowhere. In truth, however, Salton City is a 30-minute drive from either Coachella to the north or Brawley to the south, and sits directly on NAFTA Highway 86, with a daily traffic count of 25,000-plus vehicles. The unincorporated community is perched on the shore of California’s largest lake which spans 376 square miles, twice the size of Lake Tahoe.

Despite its bad rap, the Salton Sea is hopping with outdoor activities. As a critical stopover for birds migrating from Canada to South America each winter, the sea is home to 400 species of birds feted each February during the Salton Sea International Bird Festival. For the past two years, the ParaToys Convention has attracted powered paragliding enthusiasts to the sea’s wide open vistas. The first annual Salton Sea Art Fair just went off successfully.

If the view from Salton City’s front door is a full moon over a seemingly endless sea, then its back porch view is toward 600,000 acres of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest of its kind in the United States. Nearby, Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area offers 80,000 acres of camping and off-road riding access. Vast expanses of Bureau of Land Management open space are available for off-roading directly from many Salton City homes.

In many ways, Salton City has been frozen in time. The streets, water lines and sewer pipes were installed in the 1960s’ when the Salton Sea was a thriving vacation spot. It wasn’t until Al Hertz, a land investor, recently supplied electrical service throughout the area that builders have come calling.

Michael Linares thinks guys like Al Hertz and Dennis Rieger have tapped into California’s next gold rush. In fact, he got so excited about the area’s prospects, he moved his young family from Downey to go to work for Rieger, pitching land sales to small and large investors. Driving around the area, Linares happily points out where the new elementary school will be built and remarks on the camaraderie among townspeople and the lack of graffiti.


It all sounds great. But, what about the Salton Sea itself? Massive fish die-offs and foul odors caused by blooming algae can be major buzz kills. The clock is ticking on plans to save the sea from almost certain extinction and widespread environmental devastation. The sea is a closed basin. Water flows in front irrigation runoff and leaves only through evaporation. By 2017, the sea will lose half of its inflow. The State Resources Secretary is required by law to choose one of ten proposals to restore and manage the sea by April.

Once a plan is chosen, it will take two or three years of planning and engineering before construction begins. Then, it becomes a race to the finish line, to stabilize water quality and wildlife before the worst-case scenario of another Owens Valley occurs. For their part, Salton City community boosters and Type A risk-takers betting on a big score see nothing but glorious sunsets in their future.

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