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A reader writes by C. Mark Brown: A lot for us and a lot for others

May 20, 2002

These are exciting and trying times here in the Imperial Valley. At the dawn of the new millennium, California's southeastern outback appears to be on the cusp of a new era. Change is in the wind. It's all about demography and geography: the Imperial Valley is way too close to the West's population centers to remain unscathed by the sprawl.

Besides, we have relatively inexpensive real estate, affordable housing and plenty of cheap water. Yeah, water. Agua, H2O. The stuff is absolutely essential for the survival of organic life forms like us, isn't it? And let us not forget our proximity to Mexico and that we are smack in the middle of the NAFTA corridor. These are all major influences in this Valley's future.

If you look at a population density map of Southern California, one thing stands out: Everyone's crowded up against the Pacific coast. Why? Because it's hot on this side of the mountains. "Over a 100 degrees or even hotter," they'll tell you in Del Mar! Of course, in Del Mar any place east of Interstate 5 is too hot.

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Besides, everybody wants to live at the beach, right? But just as the heat can affect a man's thinking, so too can crowded cities and outrageous real estate prices. Three- to four-hour-a-day commutes don't seem so unreasonable when you can actually afford a reliable vehicle to make the trip, a decent garage to park it in between trips AND a good-sized, air-conditioned home. Just look at the Antelope, Coachella and Yucca valleys. They absorb the onslaught.

Does anyone remember how those places looked 25 or 30 years ago? Now San Diego is just about built out and home prices there are higher than L.A.

Just you wait; people will be spilling over the mountains one day. Lots of people are willing to live in the desert. Just look at the Phoenix area (population 2 million plus). Unless the population shift that has occurred in this country over the last three or four decades drastically reverses itself, the Sunbelt will continue to be where the action is.

The North American Free Trade Agreement may not be the boon that some people thought, but it hasn't been the bane of our country's existence, either, as others predicted. And NAFTA certainly has had a significant impact on our Valley. It has diversified our economic base, increased cross-border traffic and stressed our transportation infrastructure.

Soon we will have a four-lane highway running from the border to Interstate 10 to accommodate NAFTA. I foresee this thoroughfare being heavily developed as more and more people and goods travel north and south. Is that a bad thing? That depends on your point of view or how well we manage the growth. The real point here is NAFTA will continue to fuel our local economy and that is a good thing.

Sometimes I think people in San Diego and Los Angeles actually believe Albertsons, Stater Brothers, Vons, etc. grow all their produce and raise all their meat in the backs of their stores. Because they believe that, these city folks feel they can put our water to better use than we do. Perhaps they want to pay $3 for a head of lettuce year-round or $4.99 for a pound of asparagus or buy low-quality imported beef.

What I do know is this: The single most important commodity this region possesses is its Colorado River water and every one else in the Southwest wants it.

Our water stewards still have the upper hand; let's hope they don't blow it. The water issue is the single most important challenge we face as a region. One way or another, someone is going to get some of it. Get used to that idea. You don't have to panic yet. The law of the river has been on our side for decades and that kind of precedence is tough to beat.

We have another potential commodity, if we only knew how to market it in a big way: the Imperial Valley itself. What with 15 or 20 million people within a half a day's drive from here? This place could be the weekend getaway in the Southwest, even for those mortgage-strapped city dwellers from the coast. Hey, not everyone snow skis or gambles! Sure, we get some action from the dune users, the river rats, the hunters and the snowbirds, but we have got to think, dare I say, outside the box!

Sorry about that box thing, I know it's cliché. But we have tremendous natural resources that just need some intelligent development and management. The Algodones and the Salton Sea are gold mines. Granted, the Bureau of Land Management, at the behest of environmental extremists, may try to shut our dunes and the sea has its problems, but at least tentative steps are being taken to understand those problems.

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