EL CENTRO — Imperial Irrigation District has been negotiating with Hell’s Kitchen Geothermal, LLC (HKG) to transfer land near the Salton Sea to the company, plus allow geothermal drilling of the heated brine and mineral extraction.
Recently, IID entered into negotiations with HKG to transfer approximately 3,144 acres, which includes the 1,880 acres currently under lease with HKG. Documents showed at the IID’s regular Feb. 15, meeting that under the proposed transfer, IID would retain its rights to all subsurface resources, including geothermal and mineral resources.
“You have the largest geothermal reservoir in North America and, globally, the largest lithium reserve,” said HKG Chief Operating Officer Jim Turner. “There are a lot of other valuable minerals in the brine, besides lithium. This is a very important project for us, the Imperial Valley, California, the United States, and the world.”
HKG would only own rights to the surface of the land. This transfer would allow HKG to develop and construct geothermal and mineral extracting facilities on the surface of the land and lease IID’s subsurface resources.
Turner applauded IID’s decision to sell the land. “To let us acquire the surface, this will expedite our progress. Our first wells are constructed, and we plan to start production in 2023,” Turner said. “Time is our biggest hurdle. As the shoreline recedes, we will be right there mitigating dust, wherever we touch the surface, we will be stopping the dust, we will knock the dust down. We live here, too.”
However, the transfer will be subject to three options whereby IID may reacquire title to the land if certain milestones are not met by HKG. The first is that by July 15, 2024, the commercial operation of a 49.9 MW geothermal plant must be operational. The second is the operation of a 200 MW and 20,000 tons of lithium product be established and royalties to IID from the geothermal and lithium by 10 years after the transfer.
“This will ensure the land remains in production,” IID President Jim Hanks said. “If milestones are not met, IID can rebuy the land. We will make sure the land will become productive.”
The last milestone is for a complete drainage system or funds given to IID to complete the work by 10 years from the transfer.
The proposed sale is for $500 for 3,144 acres, but a significant amount of royalty payments will be paid to IID for the successful production of the subsurface geothermal and mineral resources.
“We will pay property taxes,” Turner said. “IID as a non-profit, doesn’t pay property taxes on the land, we will. This helps the County with revenue. Geothermal plants are the County’s single largest property taxpayer and most of it goes to schools. As improvements are made on the land, that will increase the tax rate we pay. We will pay higher taxes.”
Hell’s kitchen Geothermal, LLC entered into a geothermal lease agreement with the IID on March 15, 2016, which was subsequently amended on May 25, 2017; May 21, 2018; and May 26, 2020. Under the lease, HKG has a leasehold interest in approximately 1,880 acres of the surface and subsurface areas of the IID-owned land.
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.”
The underground chemical stew beneath the Salton Sea is believed to hold enough lithium to power millions of cars and homes with green energy. But only if — a big if — enough of that scalding “geothermal brine” can be brought to the surface and the lithium sifted out. That’s an incredibly complex process. And it’s just about as hard for those who live around the sea to separate reality from dreams when it comes to the impact of all that lithium. In the best case, we’ve heard over the years, a lithium boom could generate billions of dollars; bring thousands of badly needed jobs for those living near the sea; spur an environmental revival; and give clean energy to a region, the state and beyond. Quite a list. The simple fact is we don’t know how much of it, if any, will come true. As big drilling projects get underway, excitement over the potential of the Salton Sea lithium deposit is ramping up, leading to recent local and national media attention. But as a top environmental scientist just told The Wall Street Journal, it will be a few years before it’s clear whether the kind of brine there can be a major source of usable lithium. The reason that matters is the world’s immense appetite for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Among many other uses, they’re in mobile phones and electric cars, and they can store the power generated by solar panels for later use. In other words, lithium can power a green energy revolution — if we can get enough of it. And a report from the California Energy Commission said the Salton Sea area alone could generate more than 600,000 tons per year of lithium carbonate. That’s more than the entire world produced last year, The Wall Street Journal reported. It would make the region the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said. But no one knows whether it will be possible to extract anywhere near that much of the lithium under the sea. It’s a long road from talk and pilot projects to real change. Back on the surface, that’s long been true about the Salton Sea itself as it shrinks and becomes more of an environmental disaster by the day. Toxic dust exposed as the shoreline recedes has devastating effects on people and animals. When it comes to solutions, people are used to studies and promises — and not much more. There are positive steps, like a habitat restoration pilot project recently announced. But we should be well beyond pilot projects by now. It’s no wonder the growing talk about the promise of lithium seems like welcome news. Elected officials, labor leaders and others are planning how to make sure nearby residents, including people of color and the low income, get a large share of the jobs that could come. It’s wise to be skeptical for now of how many jobs that will be. But it also makes sense to be prepared for them, especially because area residents might not yet have the needed skills. Even if the Salton Sea doesn’t turn out to be the new Saudi Arabia, the process of finding out could hold some potential for the region. Local colleges may be able to train people in some of the skills companies will need as they do hundreds of millions of dollars in exploratory work. Those would likely not be six-figure engineering jobs, but any decent jobs would be welcome in the area around the sea. Meanwhile, the state needs to strike a delicate balance between encouraging lithium exploration — as it has with millions in grants — and not regulating it to death, as California too often does. There are ways for regular people to get involved, too. One is to watch meetings of the state’s Lithium Valley Commission, which includes members from industry, tribes, advocacy groups and local and state government. Its mission is to explore the opportunities lithium presents and make recommendations to the state. The commission’s next meeting is Wednesday at 9 a.m. and will include a workshop, during which members of the public can speak. The commission’s final report is due to the Legislature by Oct. 1, and you can learn more at tinyurl.com/LithiumValley. If — that word again — yes, if Salton Sea lithium does turn out to be huge, it could finally spur the long-needed action to halt and reverse the sea’s decline. When there’s enough money to be made and enough powerful people involved, things get done quickly.
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.
Lithium from geothermal brine could help meet growing demand for raw material and make geothermal power more cost efficient
DOE/IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY
Electric vehicles are expected to be essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As more of them roll off production lines and onto roads, the world will need two things: more lithium, the key element in the batteries that power them, and carbon-free power to charge those batteries.
Using computational modeling, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory say geothermal power generation may significantly address both challenges.
Annual passenger electric vehicle sales are predicted to more than quadruple by 2025, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Industry experts estimate that lithium demand will rise nearly twentyfold, from 75,000 metric tons in 2020 to 1.41 million metric tons per year by the end of the decade.
In the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Ange-Lionel Toba, an INL systems modeling researcher, and his colleagues Ruby Thuy Nguyen and Ghanashyam Neupane suggest that lithium from U.S. geothermal plants could meet up to 8% of the world’s demand. Extracting lithium from the brine before cycling it back into the ground might also offset geothermal capital costs, making electrical generation from geothermal more cost competitive.
By itself, lithium is a light, chalky powder that must go through a chemical conversion process to become lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. These compounds are combined with materials such as graphite, silicon, cobalt, nickel and manganese to make cathodes and anodes, which are used in individual battery cells. Thousands of cells may be combined to create a battery pack for an electric vehicle.
Currently, the United States imports most lithium-ion batteries used in vehicles and consumer goods, as well as the lithium for domestic battery manufacturing. With demand expected to skyrocket, policymakers are asking: How much more can be found domestically and what sources can be tapped?
One plentiful source may lie below the earth’s surface in the circulatory systems of geothermal power plants. While producing heat and carbon-free electricity, geothermal plants extract hot, briny water that is loaded with minerals, including lithium.
WHERE DOES TODAY’S LITHIUM COME FROM?
Mineral companies most commonly get lithium by drilling into mineral-rich brine in lakes on high-altitude salt flats, pumping it into evaporation pools on the surface where it is left for months at a time to dry out. These operations are widespread in South America and China.
Lithium can also be mined, usually from clay deposits. Even though the United States has large reserves, the country today has only one large-scale lithium mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, which first opened in the 1960s and produces roughly 4,500 metric tons a year – less than 2% of the world’s annual supply.
U.S. Department of Energy research has shown that we could get roughly three times that much from a green energy source. As much as 15,000 metric tons per year of lithium carbonate could be recovered from a single geothermal power plant in the California’s Salton Sea area, the most mineral-rich brine source in the U.S. Located about 160 miles southeast of Los Angeles, the area has attracted attention lately from companies such as General Motors and Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables.
HOW DOES GEOTHERMAL ENERGY WORK?
Geothermal generation requires water or steam at high temperatures – 300° to 700°F – and power plants must be built where geothermal reservoirs are located. A power station pumps hot subsurface brine to make steam that turns turbines to power electrical generators. Once the cycle is completed, the brine goes back into the ground to be reheated. Observing the large concentrations of lithium within, DOE researchers, with support from the Critical Materials Institute, developed an absorbent material to extract lithium.
WHAT’S THE NEW FINDING?
With a viable extraction process available, Toba and his co-authors posed three key research questions:
What is the economic potential oflithiumextraction from U.S. geothermal resources?
Is geothermallithiumextraction technology a viable investment in the U.S.?
What is the potential supply chain impact oflithiumsupply from U.S. geothermal sources?
Using simulation and modeling software, they probed data sets that included county-by-county estimates of U.S. geothermal lithium potential, supply/demand dynamics of lithium extraction and estimates of projected demand in the battery market.
The researchers ran two sets of experiments. One compared the capital costs of a lithium extraction project to the energy capacity of the geothermal plant – in other words: Could the plant sell enough electricity to justify an investment in lithium recovery? The other examined whether the cost of daily operations could be covered, given that both lithium prices and yield would vary over time.
As with almost any commodity, the economic potential is linked closely to supply and demand. Lithium-ion battery prices started dropping in 2014 because of oversupply and improvements in manufacturing. Prices are still low, which has dampened investors’ enthusiasm for any new projects. But with electric vehicle manufacturing on the rise, demand for lithium is expected to rise exponentially.
The results of the team’s simulations showed the benefits could be substantial. “(This) provides not only a viable option to meet demand in the long term but also a reliable source for lithium extraction domestically,” Toba said. “The technology risk is apparent, but the upside is worth exploiting.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Annual sales of passenger electric vehicles are forecast to rise to 10 million in 2025, 28 million in 2030 and 56 million by 2040, according to a 2019 report from the research organization Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The Critical Materials Institute (CMI) is a Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and supported by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, which supports early-stage applied research to advance innovation in U.S. manufacturing and promote American economic growth and energy security. CMI seeks to accelerate innovative scientific and technological solutions to develop resilient and secure supply chains for rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies.
About Idaho National Laboratory Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, and also performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. For more information, visitwww.inl.gov. Follow us on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Resources Conservation and Recycling
U.S. lithium resources from geothermal and extraction feasibility
Today, we’re bringing you an episode of a new podcast from Northern California Public Media called Living Downstream. The podcast looks at environmental justice issues around the world, and a couple episodes take place right here in California. Last week, we brought you an episode about air pollution in West Oakland. This time, we’re going to the biggest lake in California, which is now starved of water. We hear how it impacts the health of the people who live around it. We begin with Adriana Torres, who lives in a rural community there, an area called North Shore. We’ll also hear from her classmate Rosa Gonzalez.
Lopez is a zanjero, or irrigation-ditch minder, in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural expanse that lies between the Salton Sea and the Mexican border. The Spanish word for “ditch” is zanja. Since the days of old Alta California, zanjeros have directed irrigation water where it’s needed, released exactly the right amount for crops to grow, and stopped the flow when the earth has had enough. California leads the nation in farm cash receipts—the Imperial Valley alone produced more than $2 billion in crops in 2019. Every farm in the valley needs water delivered by the Imperial Irrigation District. Lopez is their deliveryman.
When people think of the state and water, the so-called Kings of California often come up, like William Mulholland, a onetime zanjero who worked his way up to become the first supervisor of the Los Angeles Water Department and the builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But who really controls the irrigation canals that carry water from the state’s reservoirs and aqueducts to the people and farms that are its end users? Zanjeros, the legendary water channelers of California.
With his salt-and-pepper hair and trimmed goatee, Lopez has the bearing of a college professor. And given the wisdom he’s earned by coaxing water out of rivers and over to thirsty fields, his patient and learned demeanor is itself an essential resource, especially during a drought. When he shares his story, you hear heritage, humility, and pride—a quiet confidence refined by decades of hard work on the canals. “My parents are from Sinaloa,” he says. “When they immigrated from Mexicali to the U.S., I was nine years old. My dad was a feed-truck driver. So [when] I was a little kid, I started working cattle. I used to work for a farmer in the valley. I’ve worked in agriculture all my life.”
In this valley, water is nature’s oxymoron: it exists because it shouldn’t. It’s piped in from the Colorado River, and the district employs 143 zanjeros to manage its path. In an average year in California, approximately 9.6 million acres are irrigated with roughly 34 million acre-feet of water. It’s an amount that would cover 31 million football fields with 1 foot of water. On the Imperial Valley’s football field, Lopez is quarterback, pass receiver, and sometimes coach, all at once.
Since the 1800s, zanjeros have guided the river’s edge, metaphorically and literally, first for the old Californio haciendas and later for the cities that replaced them. In Los Angeles’s early days, the zanjero was paid more than the mayor. For generations, zanjeros have navigated the back roads along canals, first on horseback and now in rigs with computers. More than the state’s land barons, more than the subjects of Hollywood mythologizing, zanjeros have wielded the power of necessity. Without the zanjero, there would be no California oranges or grapes. No California “backyard orchard.” There would be no California as we know it at all.
The Whitewater River, which normally flows year round in the Southern California canyon that bears its name, has run dry there, confounding some hikers expecting a brisk and scenic flow after recent heavy rains.
But those storms are the culprits, says Whitewater Preserve manager Lucas Wilgers, who oversees the area for the Wildlands Conservancy.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive … but when larger storms happen, so much water is falling such a short period of time, it just accumulates and kind of coalesces up above,” he said.
Fast-moving water carries mud, ash and other debris — including material from the 2020 Apple Fire burn scar — down from steep mountain slopesand dumps it at the stretch of river in the preserve, about 20 minutes northwest of Palm Springs in Whitewater Canyon.