An abandoned building near Salton Sea Beach in Salton City, California on December 16, 2021 (AFP / Robyn Beck)
In the 1950s, Hollywood favorites thronged the shores of Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Today in distress, the region begins to dream of a revival thanks to the gigantic reserves of lithium which lie dormant in its basement.
“It is really the largest identified lithium reserve in the United States”, assures Jim Turner, person in charge of the company Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), while indicating the desert landscape and this large salt lake.
For now, the Australian firm is only at the stage of drilling necessary for the construction of a plant running on geothermal energy. But Turner assures us that by 2024, the site will extract 20,000 tonnes of lithium from the ground per year, enough to produce batteries for around 400,000 Tesla cars.
Graph showing the evolution of the world reference price of lithium by month since 2016 (AFP /)
This metal is one of the most coveted today: the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the global demand for lithium will increase by 42% by 2040.
However, to date, the United States has only one lithium production site, in neighboring Nevada.
Will the CTR factory be the goose that lays the golden eggs for the people of the Salton Sea area, where the unemployment rate is over 15%, three times the California average?
It would not be the first mirage to sparkle in this end of the desert before fainting, some say.
– Engineering error –
California’s largest lake was created by accident in 1905 as the result of an engineering error when the Colorado River inundated 1,000 square kilometers of land, a depression several tens of meters below the level of the Wed.
Drilling operations for the construction of the Controlled Thermal Resources (CRT) lithium mining site in Calipatria, California, near the Salton Sea, on December 15, 2021 (AFP / Robyn Beck)
First used by farmers, in the 1950s this providential lake would become a very popular tourist site, attracting fishermen, swimmers and stars, up to Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys.
But from the 1970s, under the effect of drought and without any external water supply, the Salton Sea evaporated rapidly and the salinity soared, as did the concentration of pesticides and other pollutants.
Tourists desert its banks and hotels and bars close their doors, leaving behind scenes worthy of the movie Mad Max.
Like the fish in the lake, the few settlements in the region are slowly suffocating and the economy is declining more and more every day.
“We need things here. We are the poorest county in California,” said Ernie Hawkins, 79, owner of the Ski Inn, the only bar still operating in Bombay Beach.
The shore of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake plagued by drought and pollution, in Salton City on December 16, 2021 (AFP / Robyn Beck)
This village of 300 inhabitants still survives thanks to artists and curious people attracted by this ghost town landscape, between abandoned buildings and rusty car wrecks.
For Mr. Hawkins, extracting lithium could bring “a little more work”.
But a few kilometers further north, in Calipatria, we do not yet believe in the promises of lithium. “We heard that there would be jobs, that other factories were going to open, but for the moment we have not seen any change. We will wait,” says Juan Gonzalez, employee of the tire store, only business still open in Calipatria.
– “Endless possibilities” –
In their small inflatable canoe, Charlie Diamond and Caroline Hung, two researchers from the University of California who regularly come to analyze the waters of the lake of Salton Sea, want to believe in this “unique opportunity”.
For Mr. Diamond, the outcome will depend above all on the dialogue “between the inhabitants and the factory”. He hopes the project will make lithium mining “a model for the development of alternative energy” rather than yet another industrial accident in a disaster-stricken region.
Ernie Hawkins, 79, in his Bombay Beach, Calif., Bar near the Salton Sea on December 15, 2021 (AFP / Robyn Beck)
Her colleague emphasizes the importance of taking into account the environmental impact of lithium mining, particularly on the lake.
Mr. Turner assures that the innovative technology implemented by CTR, based on geothermal energy, will be more ecological than the techniques of extraction and evaporation used until now.
Ernie Hawkins, the boss of the Bombay Beach bar, is already very fond of lithium and begins to dream: “Here, I will put a charging station for electric cars. When that starts, the possibilities will be endless. ”