SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The Salton Sea, located about 120 miles east of San Diego, is the largest inland body of water in the state of California.
But even on a sunny afternoon, you won’t see it packed with boats or people lounging on the beach. This area has been declining for decades, but there is hope for the future.
Eight thousand feet below the Salton Sea is a chemical that some call “white gold”.
The area wasn’t always this depressed. Back in the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a playground for the rich and famous. The future here seemed bright. Even decades later, it wasn’t nearly this bad.
“All of Main Street was full of businesses…everybody was working,” said Javier Amezcua.
He grew up near the Salton Sea, in the city of Calipatria. Now, he's Calipatria's mayor.
It hurts his heart to see the once thriving area filled with boarded up businesses and dealing with high unemployment. And making a bad situation worse, many of the town's residents suffer from breathing issues.
“Allergies are very high in this area. Asthma, bronchitis, a lot of different pulmonary ailments.”
Agricultural runoff, including pesticides and fertilizer, eventually turned the Salton Sea into an environmental disaster.
And as the water evaporates, it exposes a toxic silt that is picked up by wind - spreading the poison into nearby towns. It's hit places like Calipatria hard. But now, for the first time in a long time, there is hope.
Under the Salton Sea is one of the largest lithium deposits in the world.
“This is going to be a game changer,” said Jim Turner, COO of Controlled Thermal Resources.
Scientists have always known that there was lithium under the Salton Sea, but no one really cared because it wasn't worth it financially for companies to extract it.
But Tesla, and its lightweight lithium battery powered cars, changed everything. Now several automobile makers want lithium for their batteries.
“One of the things you really need for an electric vehicle is no weight,” Turner said. “You want to get rid of weight. That helps the battery last longer, accelerate faster, etc.”
So now the race is now on to mine the lithium under the Salton Sea. The California Energy commission estimates the Salton Sea could produce 600,000 tons of lithium a year. That's far more than the current world demand. And it could be worth $7.2 billion.
“This is going to probably be the single largest area that produces lithium compound for batteries in the entire world,” Turner said.
His company’s $500 million project includes drilling a well 8,000 feet down where the lithium is found in superheated saltwater that can reach 700 degrees inside ancient geothermal reservoirs.
Steam from that hot water will provide another benefit, clean energy to power the lithium mining.
“The electricity we need to produce the lithium will be our renewable electricity. The steam that we need, of that heat source, will be geothermal produced steam so there's not emissions with that and so our lithium is truly green lithium.”
Turner also points out that as his company, and others, build their power plants and mining operations, they will be covering the area's toxic dirt, preventing it from blowing away.
And we're not talking decades from now, but only a year or two. General Motors needs lithium fast as it plans for 30 fully electric models by 2025.
And that also means hundreds of new, well-paying jobs, and Jim says more than 95% of them will go to people living in the area.
“We'll train people to be operators, to operate,” he said. “We'll train maintenance folks to be able to do the maintenance necessary... or we'll hire companies like PMC which is doing this work to the side. They're local.”
Imperial County currently has the highest unemployment rate in California, but those new jobs - bringing in new money - could finally mean a new future in places like Calipatria.
“New businesses, restaurants, we're hoping more shopping centers,” said Mayor Amezcua. “That's definitely what we're looking ahead for and hoping that will come to fruition.”
Mayor Amezcua has reason for optimism. Property taxes from companies with geothermal power plants already up and running along the Salton Sea have funded new schools in his city with state of art facilities.
Now he's hoping lithium will continue to power his city forward.
“I love this city. I went away to college, came back, so I want it to be the best. I want it to be better than when I was here, for sure.”
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