In the 1960s celebrities like Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and President Eisenhower flocked to the glistening shores of the Salton Sea. The salt fish stocked lake attracted fishermen along with millions of birds and became a major tourist destination. The 110 degree temperature did not stop the night clubs, powerboat racing, and golf resorts that punctuated the banks of the 343 square mile lake. The Salton Sea is located near a major agricultural valley in southwestern California bordering Mexico. The fast paced lifestyle surrounding the sea slowly became overshadowed by the toxic runoff from the surrounding agricultural farms. Decades of drought, evaporation, and lack of water flow created a hazardous environment that scattered the thrill seekers. This path, destined the lithium rich brine sea for a new resident. The flashy lights of Hollywood were replaced by the reflective metal sheen of Lithium mines.
Lithium located in the brine of the Salton Sea is estimated to hold 40% of the world’s lithium, enough to provide batteries for 50 million electric cars. The first lithium mine in California was established in the 1940s at Bristol Lake in the Mojave desert. The state is responsible for 6% of the world’s lithium supply and will continue to grow as corporations converge on the drying up Salton Sea. Energy Source, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, and Controlled Thermal are lithium extraction companies that are being funded by auto corporations like General Motors. The lithium is extracted through geothermal power plants. The industry is being boosted by the shift to renewable energy, lithium demands and new legislation. California has committed to eliminating sales of gas vehicles by 2035, increasing the demand for electric vehicles that contain lithium batteries. President Biden has also announced the reduction of greenhouse gasses by 50-52% before 2030, spurring the growth for renewable sources like geothermal.
The mining of lithium involves geothermal plants which provide low emissions, a reliable energy source, high efficiency, and little to no maintenance. Enough electricity is produced to constantly power 70,000 homes with minimal waste. The extracted lithium is used for the creation of lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles. The world has seen a global shift for these products, driving companies to increase the production of lithium. The industry will also provide economic growth to the towns surrounding the Salton Sea who experience a median household income under 40% of the national average. Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, calls it a “win win” because it heralds the transition to clean energy while simultaneously creating jobs to low-income communities. Revenue from taxes on mining will support local funding of public infrastructure. Despite numerous positive impacts to the local community, residents face health risks if regulations are not enforced.
The Salton Sea has received runoff from large agricultural hubs adjacent to it for almost 100 years. Pesticides, fertilizer, and chemicals that are baked into the brine have been picked up by winds and continue to sicken the local inhabitants. According to a 2022 Forbes article, the region is plagued with higher levels of skin rashes, asthma, lung disease, childhood nosebleeds and other long-term illnesses. As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the US will spend up to $250 million to mitigate the environmental health problems. Representative Raul Ruiz is fighting to create legislation to force lithium companies to use funds to help clean up the toxic air flowing from the deposits. The technology behind the lithium extraction process has yet to be tested and may take several years before it will be. Residents are skeptical about the unproven technology used to extract lithium. Additionally, dangerous materials that are byproducts of extraction must be handled and disposed of safely. As the severity of climate change grows, communities globally will be faced with the challenges of balancing local health and international needs.
Countries are seeking to become more economically independent. Harvesting of lithium and geothermal energy are being heralded as the necessary step to economic security. Regardless, the future of lithium mining in California remains unclear. The struggle between industry and environmental regulations has yet to declare a winner. Advancements in technology must be made first to provide clean lithium at a large scale while disposing unwanted chemicals safely. Regulations have to be enforced to secure the health of workers that renewable energy so desperately needs. We cannot let the expediency of ushering in renewables supersede the safety of those who reside nearby.
Steps can be taken to mitigate the friction between local and international needs. Representatives that fight for legislation to protect local health and the economy should be supported. Companies establishing mining operations should educate the residents on their operations and potential risks. This needs to include the low income and not just the affluent. There needs to be guaranteed wages or recovery funds for those who get ill. Voters must take steps towards incentivizing renewable energy companies to operate in California. We all want to see our local communities thrive, especially the ones that last so much. With proper care and regulation, the Salton Sea can once again become a thriving community for all to appreciate and enjoy.