Lithium fuels hope for renewal on California’s largest lake

CALIPATRIA, Calif. (AP) – Near the dying Salton Sea in Southern California, a canopy next to a geothermal power plant covers large vats of salt water left behind after drilling a very hot liquid in the basement to operate steam turbines. The tubs connect to tubes that spit out what looks like dishwater, but it’s lithium, a critical component of rechargeable batteries and the newest hope for economic recovery in the depressed region.

Demand for electric vehicles has shifted investment into high gear to extract lithium from brine, salt water that has been neglected and pumped underground since the region’s first geothermal power plant opened in 1982. The A mineral-rich by-product can now be more valuable than the steam used to generate electricity.

California’s largest, but rapidly shrinking lake is at the forefront of efforts to make the United States a major global player in the production of ultralight metal. Despite large deposits in the United States, Nevada has the only lithium plant in the country, and American production lags far behind Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.


Decades of environmental ruin and failed economic promises have left some residents of the remote shores of the Salton Sea indifferent or suspicious.

The Salton Sea formed in 1905 after a breakwater on the Colorado River broke and two years of flooding filled a sizzling basin. In the 1950s, the lake flourished as a tourist destination, attracting anglers, boaters and famous visitors, including Frank Sinatra.

But the storms of the 1970s destroyed marinas and seaside resorts. The floods destroyed many homes in the small and old resort town of Bombay Beach and, after the water dried up, left an almost apocalyptic atmosphere that has recently attracted artists.

The lake level peaked in 1995 but, with little rain, has since evaporated faster than the water from the Colorado River seeping into the farms can be replenished as farmers have conserved more water. .

Since 2003, the 324 square mile (839 square kilometer) lake has shrunk by 40 square miles (104 square kilometers), exposing a vast lake bed with microscopic windblown dust that contributes to the poor quality of the lake. air and asthma.

The sea is a key stopover for migratory birds, but species are in decline as the fish they eat become scarce. Oxygen-starved tilapia carcasses no longer periodically cover shores with a stench that could reach Los Angeles because so little remains.

In Salton City, a town of about 6,000 people, roads wind along wasteland, a legacy of its first developer who stopped construction in 1960. Signs with idyllic names like Harbor Drive and Sea Shore Avenue mark the mark. a barren landscape of cracked pavement.

Pat Milsop, a 61-year-old retired restaurateur, hits golf balls through a dry canal. His view is filled with dilapidated docks on parched ground that housed boats when his mother-in-law bought his house in 2004. He is skeptical that lithium will restore some of the lake’s glory.

“Are they going to do something good for the community or just buy all the land and evict everyone?” ” he asks. Nostalgic for the busier days, he plans to move to his farm near Lubbock, Texas.

The lake sits at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault, which features shifting tectonic plates that bring molten matter closer to the Earth’s surface.

Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd. is building what would be the region’s first new geothermal facility in more than a decade and expects the $ 520 million plant to begin producing lithium in 2024. In July, General Motors Corp. eliminate light vehicle exhaust emissions by 2035.

The owners of 11 existing geothermal power plants around the southern shores of the lake are retooling for lithium and perhaps other brine minerals instead of building from scratch. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co. has state and federal grants for lithium demonstration projects and says it could begin construction for commercial operations in 2024.

EnergySource LLC opened its geothermal power plant in 2012 and its sister company, EnergySource Minerals, has been mining lithium there on a small scale since 2016, said Derek Benson, chief operating officer. He plans to start building a $ 500 million addition for mining by the end of March.

Before being pumped underground, the brine is “borrowed” for a few hours to extract the lithium under a nearby canopy, Benson said.

The extraction of lithium from geothermal brine has never been carried out on a commercial scale. Proponents say it causes less damage to the environment than the two dominant production methods: mining rocks and using cooler brine that bakes in the sun in large ponds for about two years until what the water evaporates. The Nevada plant uses evaporation ponds.

The Salton Sea is in Imperial County, which despite having extremely productive land that supplies US supermarkets with winter vegetables, has a 22% poverty rate, one of the highest in California. El Centro, the county seat, still has one of the highest unemployment rates among the 389 metropolitan areas in the United States.

Ruben Hernandez, 54, has worked for an Imperial Valley landowner since the age of 8. He and his wife own a Mexican restaurant in the largely deserted town of Niland, by the lake. His wife wants to stay, but “there is nothing here, no city,” he said.

The promoters of the Lithium project who come for breakfast tell him that he could possibly feed 20 to 30 people and deliver lunches to their factory.

“If they want to lift this city, that would be great,” he said.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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