Experts Look to Lithium Extraction in the Race to Save California’s Salton Sea



Photos by Ian Umeda Other than rain and agricultural runoff from Riverside and Imperial County farms, the Salton Sea subsists on “mitigated water” from the Imperial Irrigation District. In 2018 the mitigated water supply will be cut off.

SALTON SEA – It is easy to imagine the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, as nothing more than a 350-square-mile puddle. At its deepest point, the silvery inland sea is just 50 feet. By 2030, it will be reduced to a mere 30 feet, and over 100 square miles of lakebed will be exposed and reduced to a noxious dust, swirling in the relentless Sonora Desert wind.

The average annual rainfall here is about three inches, and other than agricultural runoff from Riverside and Imperial County farms, the Sea subsists on “mitigated water” from the Imperial Irrigation District’s  annual Colorado River allotment. But on January 1, 2018, in accordance with a 2003 agriculture-to-urban water transfer agreement between the IID and the San Diego County Water Authority, the mitigation tap will be shut off.

The 2003 deal, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), requires the Imperial Irrigation District to divert increasing amounts of water to drought-stricken, densely populated San Diego County. Already, thousands of acres of Imperial Valley farmland have been fallowed and miles of lakebed exposed. The Sea’s wetlands — a vital stopover for some 400 migratory bird species — are disappearing. The air is thick with dust. Imperial County, where the majority of the Sea lies, leads California in both childhood asthma and unemployment.

In the community, this environmental and economic crisis has become known as the “Salton Sea problem.” With the 2018 shut-off looming, the rush is on to find a solution.

The California Natural Resources Agency has estimated that restoring the Sea would cost between $3 and $9 billion. But there is little support in Sacramento and among the greater California public for such an expensive stabilization plan for the remote lake.

Lall believes tax dollars and other outside subsidies — or mega-projects such as the once-proposed lock-lift canal to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez — are not realistic solutions for the Salton Sea problem. Instead, he suggests experts and legislators continue to focus on the Sea’s abundant renewable energy resources. Nothing can stop the reduction of water under the QSA, but royalty payments from such industries could provide funding for wetlands reconfiguration and public health projects.

“Quality of life issues,” Lall said, “always come down to economics.”

Wind and solar operations already dot the bleak landscape around the Salton Sea, but none are yet large enough to subsidize the wetlands or air quality restoration efforts Imperial County desperately needs. The renewable energy that lies beneath the desert, however, is a different story.

The 100,000-acre Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area is one of the most productive geothermal reservoirs in the country, containing up to 2,000 megawatts of new energy potential. Currently, 11 geothermal power plants are located along the Sea’s southern shore, and the Imperial Irrigation District estimates that the industry could contribute $2 billion to Salton Sea restoration programs over the next 30 years.

Additionally, this geothermal brine is also estimated to contain what could be North America’s largest deposits of lithium, which, if extracted, could prove even more lucrative. (The soft, alkaline metal, which is commonly extracted from brines and clays, is in high demand since it’s a key component of many electronic devices, from iPhones to electric car batteries.)

The Salton Sea has been shrinking for decades now and becoming increasingly saline. Only a few homes by the waterfront, most of which were built more than a generation ago, are still occupied in this now derelict Riveria of the West. However, in the 1960’s, the same area was fighting the rising sea as it consumed homes built too close to the seashore and farmers built dikes to keep the sea back.

Earlier this year, representatives from Tesla Motors, the San Francisco-based luxury electric car manufacturer, visited a lithium-extraction plant — run by Pleasanton, California-based Simbol Materials — on the Sea’s south shore. Tesla was in the midst of a highly publicized cross-country search for the location of their “Gigafactory” — 10-million-square-foot facility that will produce lithium-ion batteries for its cars. Simbol draws its brine from a nearby geothermal plant and has developed an efficient method of high-quality lithium extraction.

In September, I drove to Palm Springs — which lies just 30 miles north of the Salton Sea —to meet with Joe Wallace, who was a key player in the bid to bring the Gigafactory to the Sea. Wallace is the managing director of the Coachella Valley iHub (CViHub), a privately funded business incubator for over 20 start-ups and entrepreneurs. As we walked CViHub’s “campus” — which used to be the Palm Springs city jail — Wallace informed me that Tesla had chosen a site in Nevada over the Salton Sea. He was more frustrated at California lawmakers for failing to pass legislation that would provide more attractive incentives for the Gigafactory, than he was at Tesla.

“No other site in the States can offer lithium extraction from brine like the Salton Sea can,” Wallace told me. “Simbol is sitting on a goldmine.”

The Gigafactory would have generated 6,500 jobs, and stimulated a mineral extraction industry in the region that the IID estimates would generate $1.5 billion over the next three decades. This figure is on top of the $4 billion the IID says could come from other renewable and green industries.

But is lithium extraction from geothermal brine environmentally responsible?

“Think of it like pouring Coke into a glass,” Wallace told me. “If you were to let it sit and then put it back into the can, only the bubbles would be missing. This is not strip mining—the brine is returned into the earth.”

Even if brine re-injection proves harmless, negative environmental impact is, of course, inevitable when new industry comes to town — think carbon emissions via increased infrastructure and traffic. And lithium is just a small portion of an end product — even an electric car — that is filled with myriad toxic materials. Nevertheless, environmental experts agree with Wallace that lithium extraction is a step in the right direction.

“This is just pulling lithium off the brine that is being extracted anyway,” said University of Redlands professor of environmental studies and manager of the Salton Sea Database Program, Dr Timothy Krantz. “There is no surface discharge or lakebed disturbance.”

Michael Cohen, who is a senior research associate for the Pacific Institute and lead author of two extensive reports on the health of the Salton Sea, agrees with Wallace and Krantz, and reiterates Lall’s point that improved local economics will yield the most environmental change.

“The challenge with the restoration of the Salton Sea has always been a lack of consensus over a vision for its future, and how we were going to pay for it,” Cohen told me. “There is finally general support for the idea of creating habitat and air-quality management through the development of geothermal and other renewables.”

On October 10, Tesla’s cofounder and chief technology officer, JB Staubel was invited to Palm Springs to be the keynote presenter at the Southern California Energy Summit, a gathering of clean energy leaders co-hosted by the CViHub. Staubel didn’t mention any plans for building the next Gigafactory at the Salton Sea, but it is now clear that the Nevada facility will not be the only one.

“The Tesla people were very open about there being more Gigafactories, and that economics will drive the location choices.” Wallace told me after the summit. “The Salton Sea is certainly [still] a possibility.”

But possibility is a tough pill to swallow at this point, when the future is due to arrive abruptly on January 1, 2018.