Salton Sea: Environmental disaster, climate change solution


The first glimpse of the water driving down Highway 86 is breathtaking. From some angles, you can’t even see the other side of California’s biggest lake. It seems out of place in the vast desert expanse of the Imperial Valley, just north of the Mexican border, where it’s over 100 degrees for much of the year.

But then the car door opens, and it hits: the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs. 

At the shoreline is a sign saying not to touch the toxic water. A dog died this spring after swimming in it. Stepping onto the shore is not the silent sinking of a foot into the sand, it’s a loud crunch. Because the shore is made of crushed fish bones and dead barnacles.

Instead of sand, the shore is made of crushed barnacles and fish bones. Photo by Caleigh Wells

This is the Salton Sea. And it’s dying. It’s been shrinking for decades, exposing toxic lake bed dust that travels as far as LA on windy days. Ninety-seven percent of the fish population has died in the past 25 years. You might know it as the state’s biggest environmental disaster.

But miles under the water is another reservoir that could bring money and jobs to California’s poorest county, where the unemployment rate is 16%. It’s a pool of hot brine, miles underground, that contains massive amounts of the lightest known metal on the periodic table.

Visitors to the Salton Sea are greeted by signs like these, warning them not to touch the water. Photo by Caleigh Wells

We'd be the dominant lithium producer in the world. And we'd supply all of our growing needs for lithium domestically. And we could still export lithium,” says UC Riverside geologist Michael McKibben.

Meanwhile, thousands of people live in settlements and towns along its receding shores. That includes several thousand members of the Cahuilla Indian tribe. And they all want to see it saved.

It also includes Steven Zirblis and Don Stephens, who have lived by the sea for 30 years after meeting at a gay bar in Palm Springs.

Don Stephens (left) and Steven Zirblis (right) are cautiously optimistic the new lithium industry will help the local economy. Photo by Caleigh Wells

They live in a trailer down an unmarked dirt road, surrounded by their abundant garden, their upcycled art, their many dogs, and an endless desert expanse. They love their life here, but they also remember that the sea and the nearby communities have seen better days. Stephens says the proposal to extract lithium from beneath the Salton Sea might revive this area.

“We think it's a great idea because it's an important part going forward with respect to climate change and mitigating the carbon gases. So we're hoping it goes forward. And also it'd be nice to have a modicum of development down here and some good jobs,” he says.

They’ve watched the sea shrink and the environment decay. In recent years farmers have gotten more savvy about water conservation, which means there’s less runoff to fill the lake’s basin. The toxic dust from the exposed lake bed means the asthma rate in children living nearby is triple the state average.

On windy days, dust from the exposed lake bed creates toxic air for nearby communities. Photo by Caleigh Wells

Stephens says he and his neighbors might like the idea of the new lithium industry bringing money into town to help solve those problems, but they’ll believe it when they see it.

“I get a lot of positive feedback by people who are skeptical that it will ever come to pass. Because every great idea that has ever been planned for this area has fizzled, and people get their hopes up,” he says. “And so they've just kind of stayed here and kind of drifted along in poverty and don't know what to do about it.”

But so far, the plans for the lithium aren’t fizzling at all. McKibben says it’s the largest source of lithium brine in the world.

“So if I were to show you a … chart showing massive brine versus dissolved lithium content, for all the known deposits in the world, the Salton Sea sits off that chart. It’s so high, it can't even be put on that chart.”

He estimates there are 3 million metric tons of lithium under there. To put that into perspective, globally we mined less than 3% of that in the past decade. And most of it comes from Australia.

Our lithium demand, especially in California, is about to get much higher.

The state will ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. All of those new electric cars will run on lithium batteries. We’re also relying more and more on wind and solar power to generate electricity, and that means we’ll need more and more batteries to store that energy after the sun sets and the wind dies down. Those batteries are lithium, too.

“All these things are just coinciding and driving the demand for lithium up. So the World Bank, the UN, some investment firms like Benchmark Minerals, they're predicting basically the demand for lithium is going to explode over the next decade, maybe by tenfold, and we're just not mining enough lithium to meet that demand,” says McKibben.

Typically the two main processes of collecting lithium are not great for the environment. Mining it usually involves exploding volcanic rock and then soaking the rock in sulfuric acid. Alternatively, extracting it from dry desert lake beds means pumping precious water from underground and allowing it to evaporate for more than a year to concentrate the lithium. 

The lithium beneath the Salton Sea doesn’t require any of that. It’s in a reservoir that’s so deep and hot, the brine is steaming when it’s brought to the surface. 

Controlled Thermal Resources is one of several companies down at the Salton Sea, planning to tap into that reservoir. Chief Operating Officer Jim Turner says the steam power generated on-site can be used to extract lithium from the brine.

“That makes our lithium basically green lithium, if you will, because we're not using fossil fuels to do the manufacture or production of that lithium. And that becomes even more highly sought after by the automakers, for example, or the battery makers, because it's made in renewable mechanism,” he says.

Turner estimates once all their plants are built and running, Controlled Thermal Resources will create 1500 jobs. That is just one of the companies tapping into the lithium supply, and doesn’t include the restaurants, hotels, infrastructure and other jobs created to support the lithium industry.

Turner says the local residents he’s spoken to support his plans for a lithium plant. For the Cahuilla Indians living on the nearby Torres Martinez Reservation, the lithium industry is exciting news, as long as no reservation land is seized from them to extract it. Other local residents say they’re cautiously optimistic, as long as the toxic dust issue gets resolved.

Less than 50 years ago, docks like these provided lake access for homes on the water. Photo by Caleigh Wells

And so far, that problem does not have a clear solution. Environmentalists want to import water from the Sea of Cortez to save the Salton Sea. But the more the sea shrinks, the easier it is to access lithium. So lithium extractors like Turner are not making imported water a priority.

“My personal opinion is nobody in this world could afford doing that. I know, there's been studies out there, and technically, can you do it? Sure. Can you afford to do it? I don't know who would pay for it.”

Stephens says that makes some local residents skeptical. “People are also afraid of what kind of impact on the environment there will be but … hope springs eternal. And you know, I think it’ll be a good thing.”

Turner says they’re planning to break ground on their first plant at the beginning of next year, with a goal of being up and running by fall of 2023. But they won’t start digging before the state’s deadline to come up with a plan to fix the problem of the shrinking sea next year.