Sam Ribakoff

BOMBAY BEACH, Calif. (CN) — Sonia Herbert of Bombay Beach wants people to know that California’s Salton Sea isn’t all dystopian sunbaked abandoned homes, poverty, ominous toxic dust and decaying nostalgia. It’s also a place where people live and find beauty around the mirage-like lake in the desert.

“There’s an energy here that people feel,” Herbert said.

Over millions of years, the changing course of the Colorado River has cyclically flowed into a large basin in Imperial County and parts of Riverside County and Baja California, creating a large inland sea called Lake Cahuilla that supported the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay and Cocopah indigenous communities. When the river changed course, the lake would evaporate, and the cycle continued.

In the early 20th century, when the lakebed was dry, engineers attempted to build an irrigation canal to take water from the river into the valley to feed the growing demands of the burgeoning agricultural industry, but floodwaters breached the canal and flowed into the dry lakebed, creating the current Salton Sea in Imperial and Riverside counties.

As the agriculture industry grew, farm runoff fed into the sea and kept it from evaporating. In the 1950s, the state added fish from the Gulf of California, since the waters in the sea were almost as salty as the ocean, to create a sport fishery. The fish attracted migratory birds who needed a place to rest and eat as California drained wetlands and marshes for development. The birds in turn attracted birdwatchers, which attracted capital in the 50s and 60s, leading to resort towns along the sea like Bombay Beach that attracted Hollywood. Meanwhile, the water got saltier and saltier – even saltier than the ocean – and more contaminated with pesticides, causing greater numbers of fish and then birds to die.

In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District signed a massive agreement to send more water from the river to cities on the coast, with plans for projects to conserve the sea. At the same time, the agriculture industry was under more and more pressure to conserve water because of drought, causing less water from runoff to get to the sea. That contributed to the sea receding, exposing toxic dust from the lakebed containing selenium and DDT that now drifts with the winds around Southern California.

But thousands of people still call communities around the sea home.

Until recently, Herbert was the owner of the Ski Inn, a bar and restaurant in Bombay Beach where everyone hung out, from locals to international tourists and artists drawn to the sea, to people coming into town to destroy things under the impression that the community is an abandoned open-air rage room.

Bails of hay spread out across the Salton Sea, which are designed to block toxic dust from the receding shoreline, are seen in Salton City, Calif., on May 17, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News)
Bails of hay spread out across the Salton Sea, which are designed to block toxic dust from the receding shoreline, are seen in Salton City, Calif., on May 17, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News)

But lately the energy that’s been drawing some of the richest and most powerful multinational corporations and politicians to the sea is lithium, the main component of the batteries that power electric cars. The state calculates that deep beneath the sea lies one-third of today's worldwide demand for lithium, and with it billions of dollars in potential revenue.

Recently, Herbert said, the community was offered to put up a sign welcoming people to “Lithium Valley,” the name given to the area by a state commission which studied extracting the mineral in the county, to draw comparisons to the famous Silicon Valley technology hub in Northern California. But the community decided not to put up the sign.

Even though most people are supportive of lithium extraction and what the industry could do to provide jobs, boost local commerce and provide tax revenue for vital social services, Herbert said the community wants to give the industry time to prove that they’re willing to share the benefits of this new gold rush, not just talk about it.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of prosperity to the community, but I think there might be a dark side,” she said.

Although he’s optimistic about the lithium industry, Luis Olmedo, the executive director of local environmental justice group Comite Civico del Valle, referred to towns in the area as being made “pale” by the exploitation and extraction of resources from other local industries, especially agriculture.

For over a century, Imperial County has been one of the country’s most productive agricultural and livestock regions. With that comes backbreaking low-wage farm work in an area that sees over 100 days a year of three-digit temperatures. The area also has one of the worst air quality ratings in the country because of agricultural burning, toxic dust from the sea, and emissions from factories in nearby Mexicali, Mexico, all affecting a county that’s over 85% Hispanic with a median income far below the state and national averages.

But the lithium companies “are promising a new way,” Olmedo said. “We will see. But how that happens is what we’re negotiating right now.”

Olmedo was one of the members of the state’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California that studied the potential impacts of the industry. He said he hopes that because the price of lithium is so high, the communities around the projects can share in the benefits they’ll bring, including investments in quality-of-life projects and good, unionized jobs at the facilities for locals. He also wants county permitting agencies and others to conduct more scientific reviews of what effect the facilities will have on the environment and the health of people living around them.

“We as a country, as a people, have the ability to bring accountability. We’re a government of checks and balances,” Olmedo said.

In its report released last December, the commission said communities around Imperial County expressed their doubts in the project and whether it would harm them. In the past, companies have taken advantage of the county’s sparseness and poverty to illegally dump hazardous waste, like dirt laden with carcinogens, in communities of color.

But the commission, and the industries lining up to take part in lithium extraction, are promising that the extraction process itself will be much less environmentally harmful than other mineral mining projects thanks to a process called direct lithium extraction, which is tied to the county’s other main industry – renewable energy.

Imperial County has one of the most productive renewable energy industries in the state, thanks to solar panel fields and geothermal energy, most of which gets sent to coastal California and Phoenix, Arizona.

Geothermal mud pots outside a geothermal energy plant near Niland, Calif., on May 18, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News)
Geothermal mud pots outside a geothermal energy plant near Niland, Calif., on May 18, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News)

The Salton Sea sits on top of one of the largest geothermal fields in the world. Since the 1970s, companies have been generating electricity from those fields by digging wells deep underground and allowing water that’s heated by the Earth’s mantle to come to the surface, which produces steam that turns turbines and generates energy.

There are 11 plants around the sea that produce geothermal energy from beneath and around the sea, not on the sea’s surface water. The direct lithium extraction process is supposed to collect lithium from the water, called brine, as it flows through the pipes involved in the geothermal energy process.

Three companies – EnergySource Minerals, BHE Renewables and Controlled Thermal Resources – are already in the process of developing extracting projects from geothermal energy plants. CTR announced in January that it has already started extracting lithium, but the technology hasn’t been tested on a large scale yet.

Ryan Kelley, a representative on the county’s board of supervisors who was also a member of the state’s lithium commission, said that he hopes lithium can attract other related industries, like lithium battery manufacturing, which could transform Imperial County into a hub for the green energy economy.

Kelley and others are advocating in Washington, D.C., for the creation of the Southeast California Economic Zone, which would bring infrastructure investment credits, federal employee tax credits and other measures to the county to entice investments from tech companies and research laboratories to set up shop there.

Kelley hopes that money from the projects is shared with towns and communities in the county as well.

Last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that taxes lithium production on a tiered per-ton basis, which Kelley said could net the county $8 million in the first year of production of lithium, a number that will grow each year as more is extracted. Kelley also advocated for a provision in the bill that will fund education for renewable energy and mineral recovery jobs for locals through San Diego State University’s satellite campus in Imperial County.

The bill requires that 80% of those taxes go to the county and 20% to Salton Sea restoration projects. Communities around the north end of the sea, like Bombay Beach, Niland, Calipatria and Brawley, are supposed to see 30% of the county’s cut of the taxes.

Maria Nava-Froelich, the mayor of Calipatria and director of the Calipatria-Niland Family Resource Center, said that while she hopes the county invests more in her community, the tax money can still be put to good use, like planting shade trees for students in the school district to escape the heat and air filtration systems to mitigate the effects of the county’s poor air quality.

Recently, a fifth grader from Bombay Beach died after struggling with asthma, Nava-Forelich said. The county public health department found that in 2018, more residents overall were hospitalized for asthma-related issues than the statewide average, and the rate was twice the statewide average for children.

Nava-Froelich wants the state to pass a bill currently pending in the Legislature that would create an oversight committee for the allocation of the taxes to make sure the money is spent appropriately.

“We need funding. We need funding for infrastructure, business,” she said. “We want to thrive like the bigger cities do.”

For Thomas Tortez, the tribal chairman of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, a sovereign Native American nation that borders the sea, the infrastructure project he’s hoping to get funding for from the lithium industry is access to fresh water.

“In the end we want infrastructure that our people direly need,” Tortez said. “We’re hoping that lithium will solve the problem of clean drinking water.”

Torres Martinez land, parts of which are submerged under the sea, lies in the area where future transmission lines for proposed expansion of geothermal energy from the sea is being proposed.

Tortez said he’s also working with the industry to make sure that they work with local tribal governments to protect Indigenous cultural sites in the area.

For Herbert, the infrastructure she’s hoping the lithium tax will fund are emergency medical services.

Through grant funding, she was able to start her own Bombay Beach Rescue Service because the community didn’t have emergency medical services, but when the funding dried up the community was again left without EMS.

While she doesn’t necessarily think lithium will bring a whirlwind of growth, Herbert hopes that it can at least provide funding for these vital social services people in the county need.

“My hope and dream is to bring new hopes and opportunities to the youth, so that they have the choice to stay here and succeed,” Kelley said.

It’s a sentiment that mirrors 11th grader Ashley Havens’ feelings about the lithium.

Havens said her friends at school talk about lithium and what it could do for the county, but they’re worried that it could turn out to be just another exploitative industry that takes advantage of the county’s resources and people.

“When you grow up here, that’s just the way people think it is,” she said.

But Havens is cautiously optimistic.

“I think that we can bring major changes to the valley. I don’t think it’s doomed,” she said.

After she graduates high school, she plans to go to a local community college and then transfer to a school in San Diego, but she hopes to move back to work in public policy in something that combines her interests in environmental science and social justice.

“People here are mellow and looking for a change,” she said.