Building Steam in Lithium Valley

A giant cloud had formed a wall, enveloping the horizon in darkness. They call it a haboob, a collapsed thunderstorm that stirs up silt and clay after plummeting to Earth. The dust tornado sat between me and my hotel, and once I started down the country road, which ran along a cow feedlot that stretched for (I counted) three miles, visibility dropped to maybe a couple of feet.

Embedded within that dust is more than a century of policy mismanagement, environmental disaster, and regional despair. The recent fortunes of Imperial County, along the U.S.-Mexico border, have risen and fallen with water levels at the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland lake.

​Dust from that dry lake bed, polluted with agricultural chemicals, blows into nearby towns. Pediatric asthma hospitalizations in the region are as much as twice the state average, a crisis for the disproportionately poor residents.

“It will get worse before it becomes better,” Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea Program Director for the National Audubon Society, told me.

Perhaps best of all, DLE creates a virtuous circle. Geothermal plants have enormous up-front costs compared to solar and wind. But adding lithium extraction makes the payoff much more profitable, and subsequently enables more plants to get built, increasing clean baseload power.

“The most favorable reclamation Scenario for adopting these specific technologies will be [one] in which the Sea is allowed to shrink.” In other words, maximizing industry operations is synonymous with perpetuating the continued public-health hazard of exposed lake beds.