Salton Sea could be a big source of lithium. What does mining it mean for the environment and economy?

The Salton Sea has been called “the biggest environmental disaster in California history.” That’s partly due to its inhospitable nature and tendency to blow toxic dust all the way to Los Angeles. But as it turns out, the body of water could be a valuable source of lithium, which is a key ingredient in batteries for electric cars, cell phones, and other renewable energies. 

Lithium is experiencing a gold rush as the U.S. transitions to electric cars. But most of the lithium mines are catastrophic for the environment, including a massive site next door in Nevada that’s about to become active.

“The process they’re looking to use at the Salton Sea is to take that briny water and extract the lithium from that water, and be able to supply … much of the need of the United States,” says Ivan Penn, New York Times reporter who covers alternative energy.

He says the Biden administration has supported — across the board — the development of domestic lithium. 

“They have heavily pointed to the efforts at the Salton Sea. And California has … pushed hard in its own marketing — they've labeled the Salton Sea area ‘Lithium Valley,’ playing off of Silicon Valley. So really putting a stake in the ground to say, ‘Hey, we've got a significant, and at least more environmentally friendly source of lithium, here in California.’ And in addition to that, in an area that has been economically depressed … this has the potential to bring a lot of good jobs.”