An old swing set stands alone in the Salton Sea. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

By Julie Cart | CalMatters

California’s desert is littered with remnants of broken dreams — hidden ghost towns, abandoned mines and rusty remains of someone’s Big Idea. But nothing looms larger on an abandoned landscape than the Salton Sea, which languishes in an overlooked corner of the state.

The water shimmers and broils in the desert like a rebuke: born of human error, made worse by 100 years of neglect and pollution. California’s largest lake is also one of its worst environmental blights, presenting a problem so invertedthat its toxic legacy intensifies as its foul water disappears. 

For generations, Imperial Valley residents have been breathing in a Periodic Table of minerals and metals, as well as agricultural chemicals. But for all the misery that these receding waters have unleashed — asthma and other respiratory ailments triggered by dust clouds — the Salton Sea now offers a potential way out: A bounty of lithium, called “white gold,” one of the planet’s most prized elements, used to manufacture batteries that power electric cars and drive a fossil-fuel-free future.

And the state of California wants to be in on it.

The California Energy Commission has stepped in as an angel investor, doling out $16 million in grants to a handful of companies to determine if it’s technically and commercially feasible to extract lithium from the brine that geothermal plants are already pulling from the Salton Sea.



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