CALIPATRIA, Calif. (AP) — Near Southern California’s dying Salton Sea, a canopy next to a geothermal power plant covers large containers of salty water left behind after super-hot liquid is drilled from deep underground to run steam turbines. The containers connect to tubes that spit out what looks like dishwater, but it's lithium, a critical component of rechargeable batteries and the newest hope for economic revival in the depressed region.
Demand for electric vehicles has shifted investments into high gear to extract lithium from geothermal brine, salty water that has been overlooked and pumped back underground since the region's first geothermal plant opened in 1982. The mineral-rich byproduct may now be more valuable than the steam used to generate electricity.
California's largest but rapidly shrinking lake is at the forefront of efforts to make the U.S. a major global player in the production of lithium. Despite large deposits of the ultralight metal in the U.S., Nevada has the country's only lithium plant, and U.S. production lags far behind Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.
Decades of environmental ruin have left some residents on the Salton Sea's receding shores indifferent or wary. They have been disappointed before, most recently by solar plants that failed to be the economic engine many hoped.
The Salton Sea formed in 1905 after the Colorado River breached a dike and two years of flooding filled a sizzling basin, earning it the nickname “The Accidental Sea.” In the 1950s, the lake thrived as a tourist destination, drawing anglers, boaters and celebrity visitors including Frank Sinatra.
But storms in the 1970s destroyed marinas and resorts. Flooding wrecked many homes in the tiny, former resort town of Bombay Beach, and after the water dried, left an almost apocalyptic atmosphere that has recently attracted artists.
The lake level peaked in 1995 but, with little rain, has since been evaporating faster than Colorado River water seeping downhill through farms can replenish as farmers conserved more water.
Since 2003, the 324-square-mile (839-square-kilometer) lake has shrunk 40 square miles (104 square kilometers), exposing vast lakebed with microscopic wind-blown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma.
The sea has been a key stopover for migrating birds. But as the lake has shrunk, the fish population has declined, chasing away about 25% of the more than 400 bird species that populated it five years ago, said Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s Salton Sea program director. Carcasses of oxygen-starved tilapia no longer blanket shores periodically with a stench that could reach Los Angeles because there are so few left.
In Salton City, a town of about 6,000, roads curve along empty lots, a legacy of its first developer who stopped construction in 1960. Street signs with idyllic names like Harbor Drive and Sea Shore Avenue mark a barren landscape of cracked pavement.
Pat Milsop, a 61-year-old retired restaurant owner, hits golf balls across a dry canal. His view is filled with dilapidated docks on bone-dry soil that harbored boats when his mother-in-law bought his house in 2004. He is skeptical that lithium will restore some of the lake’s glory.
“Are they going to do something good for the community or just buy up all the land and kick everybody out?” he asks. Nostalgic for livelier days, he plans to move to his farm near Lubbock, Texas.
The lake is at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault, which has shifting tectonic plates that bring molten material closer to Earth’s surface. The only other part of the U.S. known to have more geothermal brine available is on the fault's other end in Northern California.
Rod Colwell, chief executive of Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd., oversees construction of what would be the region's first geothermal power plant in nearly a decade. General Motors Corp. said it invested in the project as it seeks to eliminate tailpipe emissions from light-duty vehicles by 2035.