Three decades ago a group of businessmen pored over NASA satellite imagery as part of a worldwide hunt for large groundwater reserves they could tap to grow desert crops. They found the signs they were looking for here in the sun-blasted mountain ranges and creosote-freckled valleys of the Mojave Desert, 200 miles east of Los Angeles.

The group, which founded Cadiz Inc., bought old railroad land, drilled wells and planted neat grids of citrus trees and grapevines, irrigating them with water that bubbled out of the desert depths at the rate of 2,000 gallons a minute.

But by the mid-1990s, Cadiz had a new business plan: Sell water, not lemons.