I Imperial Valley— Local farmers may soon be forced to bite the bullet and find ways to use significantly less water in 2023 — potentially for a lot longer.
This drastic measure may come as a result of an emergency water conservation effort to prevent further depletion of the Valley’s main source of water, the Colorado River. If less water flows down the Colorado River, the consequences could be catastrophic for the two reservoirs — lakes Mead and Powell — that feed into the so-called basin states.
For example, if water levels in Lake Mead continue dropping, it could bring water and hydropower to a grinding halt, all due to a relentless drought over two decades.
The Imperial Irrigation District, the largest water agency in California, is nearing final negotiations with Arizona — one of the lower basin states — to see how much water each state will be able to conserve. And the bar is high.
In June, the federal Bureau of Reclamation requested the states, water agencies and Native tribes along the Colorado River basin to propose ways to collectively conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023. They must all reach a deal by mid-August.
How this will impact the farmers who rely on the Colorado River to grow their crops and sustain the principal economic engine of the Imperial Valley can perhaps be better understood through the various ways the Imperial Irrigation District distributes water throughout the region, and how farmers make do with a persistent drought that seems to have no end.
How much is an acre foot of water?
Water, in general, is measured by the acre-foot, meaning that one acre-foot covers an acre of land one foot deep. One acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a family of four or five for one year.
How much does the Imperial Valley get?
The IID is allocated 3.1 million acre-feet of water, of which some 500,000 acre-feet of water are transferred to other agencies including the Metropolitan Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and the Coachella Valley Water District.
The remaining 2.5 million acre-feet of water are then distributed to farmers, residents and businesses throughout the Imperial Valley each year.
How much of it goes to farmers and how much to residents?
Today, the Salton Sea is an eerie place. Its mirror-like surface belies the toxic stew within. Fish skeletons line its shores and the ruins of a once thriving vacation playground is a reminder of better days. But long before agricultural runoff bespoiled the Salton Sea, the lakebed it now occupies was home to a much larger body of water known as Lake Cahuilla. The lake was six times the area of the Salton Sea and once covered much of Mexicali, Imperial and Coachella valleys.
“It was a freshwater lake that was about 100 meters deep in its deepest part,” said San Diego State University emeritus professor of geology Tom Rockwell. “It extended from up near Palm Springs southward into Mexico, so it was a very extensive lake.”
Lake Cahuilla has gone through many cycles of filling and drying out over thousands of years. A new study by Rockwell and his colleagues used radiocarbon dating to determine the timing of the last seven periods of filling. The research sheds light on both the history of human occupation in the area and its seismic past.
Wet and dry periods
Lake Cahuilla got its water from the Colorado River. Once a mighty waterway before it was siphoned off for agriculture and urbanization, the Colorado normally flowed south into the Gulf of California. But periodically, it switched course and began to drain northwest into the Salton Trough, refilling Lake Cahuilla. When full, the water level in the lake could rise to 13 meters above sea level.
“It has this tendency to flip-flop back and forth,” said Rockwell. “But when the Colorado drains to the Gulf of California, Lake Cahuilla would just dry up over a period of 50, 60, or 70 years.”
Sediments from these repeated filling events resulted in fertile soils in the Imperial Valley. An irrigation canal was created around 1900 to bring water from the Colorado River to the Valley for farming, but in 1905, springtime flooding ruptured the canal and gushed toward the Salton Trough, partially refilling the lake to form the Salton Sea. Once the breach was repaired, the water level remained well below that of Lake Cahuilla’s previous incarnations.
To reconstruct its early hydrologic history, Rockwell’s team sampled charcoal, wood, seeds and other organic matter from nearly a dozen in the former lake’s basin. The charcoal samples likely came from cooking fires once used by Indigenous people who inhabited the region.
Historical accounts told of the Colorado River flowing toward the Gulf of California rather than the Salton Trough in 1706, indicating that the lakebed was dry at that time. Based on radiocarbon dating of drowned stumps, Rockwell’s team determined that the last lake to form before the advent of the Salton Sea reached its highest point around 1731.
“But it had to have started drying up by 1732 or 33,” Rockwell said.
Based on an approximate rate of evaporation, that would have made it possible to completely dry out by the time Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition passed through the area in 1774 and reported that the lakebed had no water in it.
About 40 miles north of the California-Mexico border lies the shrinking, landlocked lake known as the Salton Sea. Though the lake was once the epicenter of a thriving resort community, water contamination and decades of drought have contributed to a collapse of its once-vibrant ecosystem and given rise to ghost towns.
But amid this environmental disaster, the California Energy Commission estimates that there’s enough lithium here to meet all of the United States’ projected future demand and 40% of the world’s demand. That’s big news for the booming electric-vehicle industry, as lithium is the common denominator across all types of EV batteries.
Traditionally, lithium extraction involves either open-pit mining or evaporation ponds, which work by pumping lithium-containing brine to the surface and waiting for the water to dry up. Both of these methods have huge land footprints, are often very water intensive and can create a lot of contamination and waste.
But at the Salton Sea, three companies are developing chemical processes to extract lithium in a much cleaner way, taking advantage of the Salton Sea’s rich geothermal resources. Near the lake, there are already 11 operating geothermal power plants, 10 of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division, BHE Renewables.
“We are already pumping 50,000 gallons of brine per minute across all of our 10 geothermal facilities to the surface,” said Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables, “and we’re using the steam from that brine to generate clean energy. So we’re really halfway there in that we’ve got the lithium right here in our hands.”
Two other companies, EnergySource and Controlled Thermal Resources, or CTR, are also developing joint geothermal-lithium facilities at the Salton Sea, and General Motors has already committed to source lithium from CTR.
This new industry could be a major economic boon to the region, where the majority Mexican-American community faces high rates of unemployment and poverty and suffers health impacts from the toxic dust that blows off the Salton Sea’s drying lake bed.
“We’re cautiously excited in regards to the Lithium Valley,” said Maria Nava-Froelich, the mayor pro tem of Calipatria, California, the city of about 6,000 where the geothermal power plants are located. “We see it as a game changer here for Imperial County.”
Nava-Froelich hopes the industry will bring much-needed jobs and development to the region, helping to revitalize communities that have seen an exodus of young people seeking opportunities elsewhere. And environmentalists hope that the influx of attention and money will hasten California’s efforts to restore the environment in and around the Salton Sea.
But extracting lithium from geothermal brines has never been done before at scale, so it remains to be seen whether the electric-vehicle industry, the local community and/or the environment will actually benefit.
This isn’t the first time there’s been interest in lithium recovery at the Salton Sea. Hyped start-up Simbol Materials developed a demonstration plant, but the company ceased operations in 2015 after a failed acquisition attempt by Tesla and never developed a commercial-scale facility.
Since then, demand for lithium has shot up and, after falling sharply in 2018, prices are surging once again, incentivizing projects that might not have been economical before. If the current trio of companies can prove their technology works, they stand to make a lot of money from the hundreds of thousands of tons of lithium in the area.
“The Salton Sea field, fully developed, could well serve over 600,000 tons a year, when the world production is less than 400 [thousand] now,” said Rod Colwell, CEO of CTR.
Unlike Berkshire Hathaway and EnergySource, CTR doesn’t have any geothermal power plants in the region, so it’s building a joint geothermal and lithium recovery facility all at once. Currently, the company is constructing a demonstration plant and plans to open its first full-scale facility by the beginning of 2024, providing 20,000 tons of lithium to GM.
Colwell estimates that CTR’s first plant will cost just shy of $1 billion, a steeper price per ton of lithium than many traditional lithium recovery projects. But all three companies expect that price to drop as the technology develops further.
CTR is using ion-exchange technology, which it developed in partnership with Bay Area-based Lilac Solutions, to recover lithium. In this method, geothermal brine flows through tanks filled with ceramic beads, which absorb lithium from the brine. When the beads are saturated, the lithium is flushed out with hydrochloric acid, and lithium chloride remains. This is an intermediary product that CTR plans to refine on-site, yielding lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, a powder that’s ready to be processed and transformed into precursor chemicals and then manufactured into battery cells.
Berkshire Hathaway is also using ion-exchange technology, though the company hasn’t revealed as many specifics as CTR about how it will work.
EnergySource has developed technology known as Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption, or ILiAD, and it’s jumping straight into building a full-scale facility, which it expects to be operational by 2024.
“What we see in terms of production costs is that geothermal brine should be around the first quartile in terms of market competitiveness,” said Derek Benson, CEO of EnergySource.
Notably, all three companies plan to refine the lithium on-site, a process that normally takes place overseas. But the companies aren’t equipped to handle additional steps, such as chemical processing and battery cell manufacturing, which still primarily take place in Asia.
“The rest of the supply chain hopefully in the coming years will also be developed in the U.S.,” said Knapp, “so that we’re able to go straight from lithium and other minerals in the ground to batteries that we’re using to run our infrastructure.”
EV battery maker Italvolt recently announced plans to launch a new company, Statevolt, with the intent to build a $4 billion gigafactory in Imperial Valley that would produce enough lithium-ion batteries for 650,000 electric vehicles per year. Statevolt signed a letter of intent to source lithium and geothermal power from CTR, but did not respond to CNBC’s inquiry about whether it will do chemical processing on-site.
In this special issue, California Agriculture presents review articles that highlight what research to date can say about the changing Salton Sea ecosystem and its environmental and human health–related impacts, and identify areas in which further scientific research is needed to better inform policy.
The Salton Sea, located in Southern California, is a saline terminal lake that has had many identities over the past century or so. Since its reincarnation in 1905 due to lower Colorado River flooding that partially refilled the Salton Sink, it has been California’s largest lake by surface area, covering approximately 350 square miles (Water Education Foundation 2001). In the second half of the 20th century, it was referred to as one of the most productive fisheries in the world, drawing more than 1.5 million annual visitors in the 1960s — more than visited Yosemite National Park at the time — the majority of whom were there for fishing (Cohn 2000; Harris et al. 1969). Throughout the 20th century, with a habitat that supported over 400 species of migratory and resident birds and served as an important stopover along the Pacific Flyway, the Sea warranted recognition as one of the premier bird watching locations in the United States, if not the world (CNRA 2006; Cowan 2014; Schwabe et al. 2008).
Yet with nearly 90% of its inflow comprised of agricultural drainage waters from the approximately 500,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), and exposure to an extremely arid climate that results in excessive evaporation (∼ 1.3 million acre-feet annually), the Sea’s natural attractions have faded as the lake has become more polluted and nearly twice as saline as the ocean (Fogel and Schwabe 2021; Lyons and Hung 2021). Such an outcome was not unexpected given that while the Sea has played many roles in the past, its most well-known if not primary role from a management and water rights perspective has been as a “reservoir for irrigation drainage” (Littleworth and Garner 2017, p. 256).
With the passage of the 2002 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) — a local-state-federal agreement that was developed to wean California from regularly appropriating Colorado River surplus flows above the state’s authorized 4.4 million acre-feet and that sanctioned the transfer of water from IID to entities outside of the region beginning in 2003 — the volume and surface area of the Salton Sea has declined. And while this decline won’t likely threaten the Sea’s ranking as California’s largest lake, it has exacerbated the rate of salinization of the Sea (Ajami 2021) and reduced the prevalence of fish and fish-eating birds (Nye et al. 2021). In addition, it has created a new issue that the Sea may become known for — as a contributor to air pollution (Maheshwari et al. 2021). As the Sea recedes, shoreline that was previously submerged becomes exposed and dries. This “playa” has been identified as a source of airborne particles that may worsen regional air quality and exacerbate respiratory illness and asthma rates that are already far above state averages (Bahreini et al. 2021; Parajuli and Zender 2018). Furthermore, as it continues to decay and decline, the Sea itself may become a more significant source of airborne toxins that negatively impact human health (Biddle et al. 2022 and Freund and Maltz et al. 2022, this issue).
Another role that has the potential to define the Salton Sea for years to come is as an important region for renewable energy development, specifically as a site for geothermal energy production and lithium extraction for use in batteries. Geothermal energy has been produced in the Salton Sea region for over four decades (McKibben et al. 2021), and the rise in worldwide lithium demand for supplying electric vehicle batteries coupled with the complementary nature of lithium extraction from existing geothermal energy production processes may provide a boon to the expansion of both industries around the Salton Sea. Such expansion is not surprising given that the Salton Sea region has the largest undeveloped reserves of geothermal energy and lithium in the world (McKibben et al. 2021), with possible revenues from the lithium deposits in the Imperial Valley part of the region alone of nearly $860 million annually (California Energy Commission 2020). Recent matched investments by CalEnergy (∼$6 million), a local producer of geothermal energy, and the California Energy Commission (∼$6 million) for a lithium extraction pilot project is likely a hint of the possibilities ahead. Of course, what is unknown is how the expansion of these industries can, or will, contribute to the region in terms of development, income and employment — a region characterized by some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the state — and impact environmental quality.
In response to these possibilities, along with prior commitments to mitigate expected environmental problems arising from the QSA, local, state and federal governments are investing significant resources into the Salton Sea. Since 2014, California has set aside nearly $345 million for restoration and environmental mitigation-related activities surrounding the Salton Sea, while the federal government has earmarked another $1.4 million (Fogel and Schwabe 2021; SSA 2022). These funds include such appropriations as nearly $80 million from the 2014 passage of California’s Proposition 1 bond, $200 million from passage of Proposition 68 in 2018, $7.5 million in a 2017 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support regional conservation partnerships, $30 million in support for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for water resources development passed in 2016, and a $14 million award in 2016 by the California Wildlife Conservation Board for sustaining migrating birds and the fish they rely on through wetland habitat restoration.
What the above discussion illustrates is how complex and dynamic the Salton Sea situation is, how management (or mismanagement) of the Sea for one particular role or purpose inevitably has impacts on its other possible roles and opportunities — with real consequences on human and environmental health — and how a significant amount of money has been appropriated for investing in developing plans to address the environmental and human health concerns surrounding the Salton Sea. Because of the delayed response in developing and implementing actual mitigation plans to counter the expected environmental and health-related consequences associated with the QSA until more recently, there has been a common refrain to cease with the studies and move forward with shovel-ready mitigation projects (Byrant 2021).
Unfortunately, and as emphasized in Fogel and Schwabe (2021), the science and data behind many of the state’s plans are either outdated or incomplete. As such, the returns on those significant investments are questionable, as are the outcomes. A more prudent approach than treating investments in research and investments in shovel-ready projects as mutually exclusive is to view the investments in research as a necessary and critical complement to developing efficient, sustainable and informed projects that are based on the best available science and to continue to monitor the effectiveness of such projects so they do provide justifiable and real returns to society in the form of improved human and environmental health.
In an effort to contribute to a better understanding of some of the critical questions surrounding the Salton Sea and the “state of the science,” this issue includes three papers that span issues associated with ecology/hydrology, the microbiome, and air quality and health. In the first paper, titled “Ecological Transitions at the Salton Sea: Past, Present and Future”, (Bradley et al. 2022), the authors provide a brief history of the formation of the Salton Sea, highlighting the fact that it is not a temporary fixture in Southern California but has been an integral part of the region for thousands of years. Yet, while the Sea was a relatively stable ecosystem for most of the 20th century, recent agricultural-to-urban water transfers have caused significant impacts on the ecology of the Sea, including the expected loss of all fish and the fish-eating birds that are reliant on them. And whereas research in the 1990s and early 2000s provided evidence and predictions describing much of what is being observed, the ecology of the system has changed significantly since that time, such that our understanding of the consequences of continued changes in flows into the Sea on the ecology and chemistry of the Sea is very limited. Without further research into the evolving chemistry and ecology of the Sea, and a better understanding of the hydrology of the region, particularly with respect to the surface water-groundwater interactions, the effectiveness of any proposed Salton Sea management plan is speculative at best with potentially significant negative outcomes.
Audubon California has received a grant from the United States Bureau of Reclamation that will fund project design, biological surveys, and community engagement for both dust suppression and the expansion, stabilization, restoration, and enhancement of 250 acres of these emerging wetlands near the town of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea. These incidental wetlands can serve a dual purpose in creating vital habitat for migrating birds and mitigating the dust that endangers the respiratory health of the 650,000 people who live near the Salton Sea.
The existing Bombay Beach Wetland is located on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea, about 3 miles east of the Bombay Beach community. It consists of a wetland and surrounding vegetation that has developed where several prominent washes converge and groundwater discharges. There are existing saline wetlands and brackish pond habitats for species including the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, American Avocet, Northern Pintail, and possibly the Desert Pupfish.
The existing wetland will remain small, however, without restoration and stabilization. This is because the higher quality habitat area upslope is being increasingly dominated by a monoculture of the invasive Tamarisk plant. The wildlife species, however, are already using the area, despite the lack of formal restoration or management, indicating that there is an opportunity to enhance the area.
The Salton Sea as a whole is important for more than 300 species of resident and migratory birds. Additionally, where there is not wetland or vegetated habitats, there is bare playa that is responsible for dust pollution to the surrounding communities. It is imperative that these emerging wetlands at the Salton Sea be stabilized to ensure sufficient habitat along the Pacific Flyway and to mitigate dust pollution
The Bombay Beach Wetlands project aims to stabilize and enhance various emergent and saline wetlands and playa habitats, protect human health by optimizing water use to promote dust suppression in nearby playas, and provide opportunities for recreational public access.
Wetland preservation and enhancement will be done by protecting existing vegetation, wetland, and aquatic habitat areas from damaging stormwater inflows with the reinforcement of shoreline berms that protect the area.
The reinforcement of berms, complemented by water-use optimization infrastructure, will allow for water to have a maximum environmental beneficial use. This project aims to optimize water use to irrigate vegetation around the adjacent playa for dust control, to maintain the salinity in wetland areas for optimal species productivity, and to enhance and promote new habitat in the wetland.
This project also aims to include outdoor recreation opportunities for the community and is receptive to public feedback on potential project design alternatives and public access ideas. We hope to make this emergent wetland an area that the public can experience, the birds can live in, and an area that can help mitigate public health issues.
The Bombay Beach Wetland Project is in the first phase, which is expected to take two years, which includes habitat and dust control project design, scientific monitoring and data collection, and community engagement in planning design. Following successful completion of this planning phase, groundbreaking on construction would start in 2023.
“In recent years, water inflows to the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, have sharply declined as the result of changing agricultural practices and water conservation efforts undertaken to stabilize the water supply security of the Colorado River Basin,” the members wrote. “As the Salton Sea shrinks, toxic elements such as arsenic and selenium are exposed on 8.75 square miles of Federally owned lands. When strong desert winds broadly spread this toxic dust, it disproportionately harms the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake.”
Full text of the letter is available here and follows:
March 29, 2022
The Honorable Deb Haaland
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
The Honorable Michael Connor
Assistant Secretary for Civil Works
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
441 G Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20314
Dear Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack and Assistant Secretary Connor:
We are writing to request that you jointly develop a near-term funding plan to fulfill the U.S. Government’s acknowledged initial landowner responsibility of at least $332.5 million over the next decade to manage the exposed Salton Sea lakebed. We ask that you prepare this near-term funding plan by December 31, 2022 in close coordination with the California Natural Resources Agency and the Salton Sea Authority, which is composed of locally elected leaders, the Torres Martinez Tribe, and major area agricultural districts.
In recent years, water inflows to the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, have sharply declined as the result of changing agricultural practices and water conservation efforts undertaken to stabilize the water supply security of the Colorado River Basin. As the Salton Sea shrinks, toxic elements such as arsenic and selenium are exposed on 8.75 square miles of Federally owned lands. When strong desert winds broadly spread this toxic dust, it disproportionately harms the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake. In particular, Imperial County is 85 percent Mexican-American and has among the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the nation. Approximately 1 in 5 Imperial Valley residents have been diagnosed with asthma, more than double the national average, and pediatric emergency room visits for asthma and respiratory distress in the region (to include Riverside County and Tribal communities) are three times the California average. It is critical for the health and well-being of these communities that we work to mitigate the adverse effects of the receding Salton Sea as quickly as possible.
Congress has urged immediate Federal action to address the government’s landowner responsibility to protect the public health of these disadvantaged communities. The Joint Explanatory Report for the just-enacted Fiscal Year 2022 omnibus appropriations bill directs Reclamation “to provide to the Committees not later than 90 days after enactment of this Act a briefing on Reclamation’s plan for managing the air quality impacts of the estimated 8.75 square miles of lands it owns that will emerge from the receding Sea over the next decade.” In its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, Interior estimated a $332.5 million near-term cost to manage these lands ($38 million per square mile for the 8.75 square miles in federal ownership), plus $4.5 million annual operations and maintenance cost. Interior’s budget request cautioned that these cost estimates are “extremely conservative.”
Congress has provided your agencies with multiple well-funded programmatic authorities from which a near-term federal Salton Sea funding plan may be derived, including through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act and various Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation authorities. While we appreciate and strongly support the Corps’ inclusion of $1.5 million in its IIJA workplan to advance a Salton Sea feasibility study to contribute federal funding support for long-term Salton Sea management, we are keenly interested in what near-term funding the Corps could direct to address the United States’ immediate landownership responsibilities.
We note that the Salton Sea funding plan we request will significantly advance the Biden-Harris Administration Executive Order 14008, which provides that 40% of federal infrastructure, energy and related investments should flow to disadvantaged communities like those surrounding the Salton Sea. The United States also bears Tribal trust responsibilities to the Torres Martinez Tribe.
While we believe Congress has provided you with ample direction, authority and funding to address the United States acknowledged near-term Salton Sea obligations, to reduce the public health burdens of the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake, and to further protect federal interests in the region over the long term, please notify us if additional congressional direction is needed to support this work. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Lithium is required for making electric vehicle batteries and other devices that store and use electricity. As the world transitions away from fossil fuels and electric vehicles become increasingly popular, an acute deficit looms in lithium supply: its price increased by over 400% in 2021. The shortage could put the brakes on many automakers’ plans to create all-electric inventory by 2035.
To help ensure America’s supply, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office is supporting this new lithium study with $1.14 million. It is being led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with UCR and Geologica Geothermal Group, Inc.
“We hope that our collaborative research will provide independent, objective scientific data on the origin, extent and sustainability of the extractable lithium that is present in the Salton Sea geothermal brines,” said UCR geochemist Michael McKibben, who has been studying the Salton Sea geothermal field since the 1970s.
“We also seek to identify any environmental issues associated with direct lithium extraction from geothermal brines, even though they appear to pale in comparison to the significant environmental problems associated with traditional open pit and evaporative pond mining of lithium that occurs in the rest of the world,” he said.
“Extraction from the deep hot brines will not have any direct impact on the Sea itself, but the process does require some water use and some chemical reagents,” McKibben said.
Geothermal energy is a clean, renewable form of energy in which hot fluids are produced from deep underground, and the steam from their boiling is then used to generate electricity. Lithium would be extracted from the spent, cooled brine before it is reinjected into the ground.
Currently, most of the world’s lithium is either mined from open pits in China and Australia or extracted from salar deposits — salt lake flats — in South America. These methods run the risk of groundwater contamination, water depletion and air pollution. In addition, these methods aren’t extracting lithium quickly enough to meet demand.
he potential size of the lithium resource below the surface of the Earth near the Salton Sea is staggering. Governor Gavin Newsom recently called California the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and the state established the Lithium Valley Commission last year to report on the opportunities.
“The Salton Sea geothermal system is the primary potential geothermal resource for lithium in the United States, and it’s a world-class resource,” said Pat Dobson, the Berkeley Lab scientist leading the project. “But there is a wide range of estimates in terms of the size of the resource, and also not a great understanding of where the lithium comes from, the rate at which it would decline over time with extraction of lithium from the geothermal brines, and whether it would be replenished by the remaining lithium in the host rocks.”
It is also not yet clear whether all of the lithium is extractable, or whether there is any risk of inducing an earthquake from expanding geothermal production in the area. The project will address these questions, as well as questions about the efficiency of geothermal extraction.
McKibben and Maryjo Brounce, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, lead the UCR effort in this project. Brounce will use her energy dispersive and laser ablation instrumentation to map out where the lithium is located within the reservoir rocks, and what mineral form it’s in. This characterization will then be used to assess the rate of resupply of lithium to reinjected geothermal fluids.
“We’ll look at how quickly might you expect the resource to be regenerated – is it centuries? Decades?” Brounce said. “Those chemical reaction rates will depend pretty strongly on where in the rock lithium is stored, so it can help create a predictive tool.”
The research team will be assisted with brine data from companies that have already started pilot lithium extraction operations at the Salton Sea.
“We want to use the existing brine data to develop a predictive tool for how much lithium is present in brine as a function of its temperature and salinity, in order to estimate how much lithium is present in those parts of the geothermal field that have not yet been drilled out and explored,” said McKibben. “So far only about a third of the known thermal resource in the field has been drilled into.”
Ultimately, the researchers hope that in addition to forming the basis for a new domestic battery industry, geothermal lithium extraction could lead to economic growth in Imperial County, which has the lowest per capita income in the state.
“We need to get students in Imperial County and elsewhere to understand that they can have lucrative careers involving green energy near the Salton Sea,” McKibben said. “This is an opportunity to do that.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. — US Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) announced the US Army Corps of Engineers will receive $172.5 million in federal funding to help move forward critical water infrastructure projects in California. This funding comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, both of which Padilla voted to pass last year, according to a press release.
Highlights of California projects receiving funding include:
$28 million to restore and revitalize the Los Angeles River. This project will restore hundreds of acres of habitat around the river and expand access to green space and recreation for thousands of Angelenos.
$35 million for the San Joaquin River Basin to help reduce flood risk to the city of Stockton.
$30.5 million for the Encinitas-Solana Beach Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project to reduce coastal erosion and improve public safety.
$8 million to improve commercial navigation at the Port of Long Beach to allow larger and more ships to pass.
$1.5 million for a Salton Sea feasibility study to facilitate the development of long-term solutions for public health and environmental impacts of the Salton Sea.
$1.7 million to complete a San Francisco Bay Shoreline feasibility study to develop plans to reduce flood risk and restore wetland habitat along the south bay shoreline.
“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law continues to deliver for California,” Senator Alex Padilla said. “Infrastructure includes the coastal ports and inland waterways that are vital to our economy, and the wetlands and levees protecting communities from storm surges and catastrophic flooding. I’m proud to announce that millions of dollars are coming to California to improve the capacity of our ports, restore natural habitats around our rivers, and provide more green space and areas for recreation.”
Troubled region could become a prime site for a satellite industry: battery manufacturing
People have been fighting Salton Sea shrinkage, salinity and stench for decades without much success. But now the local economy could be headed toward a boom.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to help energy companies tap into a huge underground reserve of lithium that’s in high demand for the big rechargeable batteries needed to power carbon-free automobiles.
“We have what some have described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Newsom told reporters in unveiling his $286-billion state budget proposal, referring to that country’s vast oil reserves.
Newsom proposed $22 billion in new spending on a wide range of climate change projects — actually, $37 billion over six years, including money allocated last year.
“California is leading the world in forging an oil-free future,” the governor said. “We will not sell [new] traditional gas-powered, internal combustion engines by 2035. This is dramatic. It’s profound.
“You can’t get serious about climate change unless you’re serious about tailpipe emissions.”
Newsom is proposing $350 million in tax credits that lithium entrepreneurs can apply for — plus regulatory streamlining to cut the lengthy, frequently agonizing process of obtaining government permits for their projects.
He’s asking for $100 million in tax credits annually for three years to help finance “pre-development” of any kind of clean energy. But this is clearly aimed at aiding the budding lithium industry. The money could be used for things such as engineering, equipment and infrastructure.
California’s largest and most troubled lake has been shrinking and becoming more saline for nearly three generations. Once thriving resorts have been abandoned and it’s no longer a popular vacation destination.
An estimated 97% of its once-abundant fish have died off, most rotting on the beaches. Waterfowl no longer find it a pleasant resting spot on their winter migration, largely because the edible fish have all but vanished.
Created in 1905 by a levee break that allowed Colorado River water to flow into the Imperial Valley, the shallow lake was about 15 miles by 35 miles. But it has been receding as farmers used water more efficiently and there was less irrigation runoff into the lake.
As the lakebed became exposed, desert winds sent clouds of toxic dust into nearby communities — some even reaching the Los Angeles basin. The place had a rotten egg smell.
People have been working on all that but making little progress.
Lithium could at least be an economic salvation, providing hundreds and potentially thousands of good jobs. And, if that happened, perhaps enough resources could be generated to mitigate the lake problems.
“The value of lithium has gone up and up,” says Dee Dee Myers, director of Newsom’s Office of Business and Economic Development. “We need more battery storage. It turns out that this part of California has one of the world’s largest reserves of lithium.”
And if the lithium can be tapped in great quantities, Newsom and energy companies are thinking, the Salton Sea area could become a prime site for a satellite industry: battery manufacturing.
Karen Douglas, a member of the California State Energy Commission, says it’s estimated that within two years, California could produce nearly a third of the global lithium demand.
Australia, Chile, China and Argentina are the major lithium producers now.
“Lithium is obtained from brine.
Extracting it is like drilling for oil. You drill from a derrick a mile or more into the earth and pump out water. The lithium is removed from the brine. Then, around the Salton Sea at least, the water would be injected back into the ground.
“It’s kind of a clean process,” Myers says.
“It’s 75% water and 25% gunk. Solid gunk,” says Jonathan M. Weisgall, vice president for government relations of Berkshire Hathaway Energy. “The challenge is to get the lithium out of the gunk in an environmentally responsible and economically viable manner without getting out the other stuff.”
Weisgall says Berkshire Hathaway is operating two demonstration plants at the Salton Sea and hopes to begin commercial operations in 2026.
“We’re crawling before we’re walking, and we’ll be walking before we’re running,” he says.
His company already has received two government matching grants totaling $26 million — one from the state, another from the feds — and has matched each with its own money.
“We would not be putting in this sort of resources if we did not think there was a high-level prospect of success,” Weisgall says.
This may not be another 20th century oil boom or 19th century gold rush for California. But it may be for people around the Salton Sea.
NILAND, Calif. — Deep in the Southern California desert, a massive drill rig taps into what could be the energy of the future.
Temperatures in the region can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and residents live under the threat of toxic dust caused by decades of agricultural runoff depositing chemicals into the Salton Sea, a saltwater lake.
But in the brine lies lithium, a key ingredient for electric vehicle batteries, and the billion-dollar drilling project promises to not only transform an impoverished region, but also help the United States gain energy independence.
“You can bring that brine to the surface” said Jim Turner, chief operating officer for Controlled Thermal Resources, the company conducting the project. “You have a lot of energy in the form of heat that you can use to do work.”
Geothermal energy production has been around for years, but this effort will double dip by extracting lithium from the brine. Much of the lithium used today comes from Australia and South America and is shipped to Asia, where it’s refined and used in batteries, which are mostly made in China.
With automakers shifting to electric vehicles, lithium could become the “white gold” of the future, and extracting it in California could reduce or even eliminate U.S. dependency on Chinese production, Turner and other experts say.
“It will be the largest lithium production in the U.S., and it may end up being the largest lithium production facility globally,” Turner said.
The lake formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed and flooded a hot basin, known as the Salton Sink, over a two-year period. In the 1950s, it thrived as a tourist destination, drawing celebrity visitors, including Frank Sinatra. Today, the resorts and marinas are long gone, and desert winds carry toxic dust from agricultural chemicals into the lake, about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Although the project could bring thousands of jobs to the area, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 17 percent, some locals want to know more about the plans before wholeheartedly supporting it.
“I don’t know much,” said Ruben Hernandez, who owns the Buckshot Deli and Diner near the extraction site. “They say they are going to bring a big plant.”
Like many, he said he doesn’t understand the extraction process. But if it brings prosperity to a region where 22 percent of residents live in poverty, he’s all for it.
“Well, they need more, more jobs,” Hernandez said. “If the revenues come to the town, it will be good for the people”
But he also worries the project will create more pollution.
“A lot of people are like, especially the kids and old people, getting asthma,” Hernandez said. “You know, asthma, allergies, all that stuff.”
Michael McKibben, an associate professor emeritus in geology at the University of California, Riverside, said the process is “amazingly clean.”
“In Australia and China, they’re mainly mining hard rock lithium, so they have to have open pit mines where they blast rock with dynamite, and they have to crush that rock,” he said. “This method of producing lithium is really amazingly clean because the brine’s already been brought to the surface. It’s already having the steam taken out of it to run turbines and make electricity.”
The Imperial Irrigation District will also collect taxes on the extraction that can be used to invest in the region’s water needs.