In late summer, it’s not uncommon for a big storm to send a gush of water down an arroyo, a dry streambed that gets cut by monsoon storms in the Southwest. To the farmers who lived in the Imperial Valley of California in 1905, the weird early summer water that came pouring down some of the arroyos must have been a bit of an enigma. With no storms in sight, where was the water coming from? After all, the valley they had moved into had been bone dry and they could only farm because of a big irrigation project.
But, the water kept coming and coming and coming, and the farmers had to have eventually got word that something had gone horribly wrong with the irrigation system. A big canal was only supposed to divert a small portion of the Colorado River’s water into the dry valley, but spring floods broke one of the gates open, diverting the entire river’s water down the canal.
Now, the parched valley they were farming in was filling up with water, and flooding out some of the farms. The water hit a dead end at the bottom of the valley, and formed a growing lake. Engineers and railroads tried desperately to close the canal off, but the relentless waters of the Colorado weren’t having it. Multiple attempts to put the river back on its old course failed, and a giant waterfall started creeping up the canal’s course.
If something wasn’t done to stop the waters, the whole area could be flooded. But, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. All around the area, people had seen what looked like a dry lake. Around the edges of the valley were high watermarks from a long gone lake. Native Americans living in the area all had tales of a giant lake in their families, too.
Fortunately for the farmers, efforts to put the mighty Colorado back into the Gulf of Mexico succeeded, but there was a new lake, which people called the Salton Sea.
Brine Collects Underground
Over tens of thousands of years, the lake had formed and dried up many times. The Colorado River Delta had filled the area in, chasing the Sea of Cortez away with sand and silt. Eventually, as the river delta meandered further and further south, the Colorado River would double back into the area it had filled up millions of years earlier. When it meandered back up North, it would get caught in the Salton Sink, creating the lake.
But, rivers are always pretty flaky in their course in a delta, so the river would eventually go a different way, abandoning the lake. The lake would then spend the next 70 years or so drying up, creating lots and lot of salty water. When the river came back again, the valley would fill back up, sometimes getting so full that it would dump water into the sea again (along the Rio Hardy), becoming a freshwater lake for anywhere from a few years to hundreds of years, and then drying up again.
All of these cycles of dry, fresh, salty, dry, fresh, salt caused a lot of salty water to build up in the ground. We call this nasty stuff “brine.” In some places, volcanic activity acts like stove burners under the brine, boiling the nasty stuff and even making it come out of the ground near the shores of the Salton Sea.
The Lake Isn’t The Only Thing Drying Up
Today’s lake isn’t doing too well, and it’s dragging the economy of the area down with it. The original floodwaters from the canal disaster would have dried up within a few decades, but inefficient agriculture kept sending a lot of water into it, stabilizing it. The big saltwater puddle attracted tourism, including lakeside resorts and vacation homes, causing a bit of a boom.
As farmers figured out how to be more efficient with their water to keep more of it in the Colorado, less flowed into the lake and more was sent to coastal cities for drinking water. The State of California was supposed to do something about the evaporation in a 2003 agreement, but didn’t do anything for over a decade, and even now are doing very little.
As it dried, nasty dust storms poisoned the air with agricultural runoff, arsenic, and other nasty chemicals. The resorts died, and people abandoned the vacation homes. This slow-moving environmental disaster has caused the whole area to become economically depressed.
The Brine Could Come To The Rescue
A recent YouTube video by PBS shows us a way that the underground remnants of the lake could come to the rescue of not just the Salton Sink, but the EV industry.
Since the 80s, companies have been taking advantage of the heated brine to capture geothermal energy, so it’s known how to get heat out of the stuff and then send it back into the hot ground where it came from. But, with a little more work, it’s possible to extract lithium from the brine.
How much lithium? About as much as the whole global economy currently extracts from other sources (the video says it’s 6x global production, but they correct that error in the description). This could easily cover the entire needs of the US EV industry and leave plenty to share with friends in other countries who are trying to rely less on China. Plus, extraction from brine could happen with far less harm to the environment than open pit mining or other mining efforts.
Sadly, though, water will be needed to accomplish this. The video puts this amount at 50,000 gallons per ton of lithium, but the area is already struggling to get enough water from the drying Colorado River.
But, it’s still promising enough that companies like GM are partnering with Controlled Thermal Resources to get lithium from the brine. If the challenges can be resolved, the region’s economy could drastically improve and end the depression that the drying lake left them with.
There’s also the issue of helping the local community recover. To resolve this, the State of California has already created a lithium tax, where 20% of the funds go to Salton Sea restoration efforts (which would reduce the toxic dust), and 80% to help struggling local communities along the shores.
The people who live in the area don’t believe in the tax or the promises to restore the area because promises have been broken repeatedly over the years as coastal cities took the water and did nothing in return for it, and then later, very little. So, getting such a project going will require actually doing right by the local residents to regain their trust.
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